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Officials under pressure as Montreal’s water woes test public’s patience

Chantal Morissette, director of water services for the city of Montreal, speaks at a news conference on May 23, 2013, with Christian Dubois, the city councillor with responsibility for public safety.

GRAHAM HUGHES/The Globe and Mail

Montrealers are seeing their resilience tested amid a series of Metro breakdowns, another police raid at city hall, and the second day of a boil-water warning that deprived countless households and businesses of potable tap water.

City officials came under pressure on Thursday to shed light on the cause of the mishap at a major water-filtration plant that led 1.3-million people across Montreal to be placed under an extraordinary boil-water advisory. The city said it would complete testing on 44 drinking-water samples late Thursday night, meaning that many Montrealers would go to sleep without knowing whether they could safely drink the water when they woke up. The advisory was lifted after 10 p.m. Thursday.

Day 2 of the warning translated into bring-your-own-water days at schools, green garbage bags over water fountains in city parks, and dark humour on social-media sites about "corrupt water" in a city beset by infrastructure breakdowns and a protracted ethics scandal.

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Water levels in a reservoir in Montreal's biggest filtration plant dropped too low on Wednesday, allowing sediment at the bottom of the basin to be pumped into the city's vast distribution system.

Officials say they slapped on the advisory as a precaution, but were still unable to explain Thursday what went wrong in a critical piece of municipal infrastructure. Chantal Morissette, chief of Montreal's water service, says the plant is undergoing $150-million in renovations, posing a challenge as the city keeps the plant simultaneously in operation. Though private contractors are doing the renovation work, city employees were involved in the water-lowering operation, she said.

"Everything has to be done at the same time, and that makes it more complex," she said in an interview. She said Montreal's aging water filtration and distribution system has undergone billions in investment and requires billions more. "There had been a deficit in investment."

The city also took heat Thursday for what is seen as a slow response in warning residents, businesses and institutions like schools and daycares of the boil-water advisory. Dominic Frigon, a McGill University professor who lives one block from the filtration plant, found out about the warning hours after he drank his morning coffee and allowed his two school-age children to drink tap water.

Though he feels the city should have done a better job getting word out, he is not worried about illness because the water that was pumped through city pipes and into his tap had already been filtered and treated to remove harmful bacteria. The city draws the water from the St. Lawrence River and puts it through a filtering and chlorination process. "There's no reason to panic about an imminent health risk," said Prof. Frigon, a professor of environmental engineering.

Perhaps more damaging is citizens' perception about shaky management of essential city services. The Metro suffered a system-wide stoppage on Tuesday, its seventh in a year. And the second day of water woes came as UPAC, the provincial anti-corruption police squad, executed a low-key raid at Montreal city hall, part of its investigation into corruption and collusion. It was the second raid at Montreal city hall in just over three months.

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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