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RDCK faces multi-million-dollar problem buried in the ground

Aging asbestos-concrete water pipes are an environmental hazard
The City of Terrace rebuilds a road while removing asbestos-concrete water pipes in May 2023. The Regional District of Central Kootenay says it also needs to begin replacing the same type of pipes. Photo: Viktor Elias

by John Boivin

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Valley Voice

Directors of the Regional District of Central Kootenay chose to “do the right thing” on a water system construction project recently, even though it will cost an extra $20,000.

The board voted at its Aug. 17 meeting to remove hundreds of metres of asbestos-cement water pipe from a system in West Robson, rather than leave it buried in the ground for future generations to deal with.

“The board approved that we should go with the staff recommendation, which was to do the right thing,” says Area F Director Tom Newell, chair of the RDCK’s new Water Services Committee.

Staff presented three options for removing nearly 400 metres of water pipe from the West Robson water system, which is past its lifespan and due for replacement. The pipe is made of concrete that contains asbestos, which was used up until the 1970s to strengthen water pipes.

The two options the board didn’t choose were to remove just a section of the pipe, or to leave the old pipe buried where it is, and dig a new trench for new plastic pipe. That final option could have seen the project come in under budget by nearly $250,000. Instead, directors chose to remove the old pipe completely and dispose of it – a huge project that requires removal of trees and work on private land. This option will add $20,234 to the cost of the project – budgeted at $500,000 before the added cost of the removal/disposal of the pipe.

“If you can handle it reasonably easy, or comparatively more easily, it’s better to do it now,” says Newell.

While there are no federal or provincial rules dictating the disposal of asbestos-cement pipe, doing so “prevents legacy contaminants for future generations to address,” a report from staff said.

The extra money for the removal will be transferred from reserves.

Big buried problem

Asbestos-cement pipe is a completely safe means to transport potable water. However, as the pipe ages and the concrete breaks down, it releases the asbestos – a hazardous waste – into the environment.

West Robson is only one of about nine RDCK-managed water systems that have asbestos-cement (AC) pipe. In all, more than 40 kilometres of AC pipe is estimated to be buried in the ground in RDCK systems.

The decision on West Robson will only apply to this particular case, Newell said. But users of other systems will have to start thinking about the issue.

“It’s going to be a massive challenge,” says Newell. “There are many systems that rely only on their users to finance it. Each system will have to look at what it will do with its pipe.”

And it’s an expensive problem. At about $470/metre for removal, that’s more than $18 million in future removal costs at today’s rates.

That price will only go up. While asbestos-cement pipe is stable for 45-to-70 years, as the pipe gets older it gets harder to safely remove all the contaminated asbestos pipe from the ground.

The problem for the RDCK is only going to grow as the pipes of those nine water systems come to the end of their useful lives. The longer the regional government waits, the bigger and more expensive the problem will get.

“However, the concern with abandonment of asbestos cement pipe in place is that it will eventually deteriorate, become friable, and be considered a hazardous waste,” notes a staff report. “The Contaminated Sites Regulation could then trigger costly site remediation obligations. Once the pipe is deteriorated, it would also pose a greater handling and disposal health risk.”

So it may be better to remove it now than wait for the problem to get more expensive to clean up.

“It’s a big issue,” says Newell. “The exponential financial challenge of friable concrete pipe is almost unknown as to what the ultimate liability of that will be. Because it becomes almost impossible to handle, remove and dispose of.”

No rules

Complicating things is the lack of any laws, regulation or guidelines from senior levels of government on how and when to remove pipe and safely dispose of it.

“All local governments that have asbestos pipe have to have asbestos handling and disposal procedures, but no literature has been found that summarizes local government policies on abandonment in place of asbestos pipe,” the staff policy report states. “It is believed that most local governments likely still permit abandonment in place due to the high cost of pipe removal.”

With no guidance to help them, staff developed a made-in-RDCK policy on asbestos pipe removal for the future.

“We are charting new territory without their guidance,” says Newell. “And there’s a lot of this pipe in the ground. And it’s all coming to roost right now, which we’re finding with so much infrastructure. The [infrastructure resulting from] massive growth of the 50s, 60s and 70s is now 60 or 70 years old.”

Generally, the draft RDCK policy default is to remove the pipe. Any pipe on private land should be removed from the ground when the pipe is being decommissioned. The only time that would not apply is if some law forbids it, if it is too dangerous a health and safety risk to remove, or if the government can’t get access permission from the landowner.

On public land, the default is also to remove the pipe, and only leave it in place if forbidden by law, too dangerous to remove, or if they can’t get provincial access permission, or if the cost of removal is 75 per cent more than the cost per-metre of new pipe installation.

The RDCK’s water services committee decided to take more time to review the policy, and will consider adopting it at a meeting in October.