May 16, 2022

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Tapped out: Shawinigan residents want answers about water filtration plant

Elizabeth Grégoire fills a kettle with water in the kitchen of her home in Shawinigan-Sud. She empties the boiled water into a large pot on the stove, where, once it’s cooled, she’ll transfer it to jugs for use during the day.

This has been Grégoire’s routine for four months now, since the city abruptly announced the closure of the water treatment plant at Lac à la Pêche, which provides drinking water to their district, as well as Shawinigan center, Lac à la Tortue and Saint-Gérard-des-Laurentides.

Grégoire is tired of the added complication, but she’s more frustrated with the attitude of the mayor, when people ask for answers about why a $43-million facility doesn’t work.

“He doesn’t want to admit there was a mistake,” Grégoire said. “So he prefers to blame the citizens for being complainers.”

The mayor, Michel Angers, says he can’t make information about the plant’s problems public because the city is considering legal action.

Grégoire’s husband, Eric Bonfanti, wonders whether a push to save money led the city to choose the wrong firm to design the plant. He wants the mayor to make expert analyses public so he can judge for himself.

“Most people aren’t idiots,”‘ Bonfanti says. “‘If you made a mistake, admit it!”

The water treatment plant at Lac à la Pêche has been idle since December, 2021 after problems with its filtration membranes. It came online in January 2020, to treat drinking water for three Shawinigan, Que., districts. (Radio-Canada)

New plant had problems within months

Problems became apparent shortly after the Lac à la Pêche station came online in January 2020. The membranes installed to filter impurities out of the water from the lake were getting clogged with a mixture of the organic matter in the water and the chemicals used to treat the water.

In late November, plant operators made an urgent call to the city. The filters had clogged to the point where the plant was on the verge of a breakdown. The city ordered the shutdown of the facility, and rigged a bypass where the lake water would be chlorinated before being pumped through the distribution system.

Because the water was no longer being filtered, public health ordered a boil-water advisory for the city neighbourhoods affected.

The city commissioned a study by a team from Polytechnique Montréal, the Université de Montréal’s engineering school.

The mayor announced in December that the preliminary results suggested the plant would need to undergo modifications to properly filter the water from the lake.

City engineers are working on a temporary solution. But four months into the boil-water order, tempers are starting to flare.

Tensions simmer at city council

At the monthly city council meeting in early March — the first in person since COVID restrictions were lifted — residents finally had a chance to ask questions face-to-face. People peppered Mayor Angers with criticism for a lack of transparency on the water file.

André Berthiaume was one of the people who took the mic. In August 2020, he found sludge in a stream that runs along his property, situated near the Lac à la Pêche plant.

Berthiaume realized it was coming from the plant and alerted the city and the Environment Ministry. He also spoke to the Journal de Montréal. The newspaper story brought the problems at Lac à la Pêche to light.

Shawinigan Mayor Michel Angers has faced angry questions from citizens over the failure of a new water treatment plant. (Radio-Canada)

Berthiaume had to fight to get the city to agree to clean up the stream and he has criticized the mayor for refusing to say who’s accountable for the problems.

At council, he asked who is responsible for seeing that the municipal code of ethics is respected.

After the city clerk had responded, the mayor underlined the importance of the code and transparency, then added, “But the more you know, the more you watch what you say. For example, we know who your daughter is, we know how she’s connected, we know how those things can work.”

Berthiaume’s daughter is a journalist at the Journal de Montréal but was not involved in the coverage of Shawinigan’s water problems. Angers’s response prompted a chorus of boos from the people on hand.

Repairs now, legal action later

Angers says it’s a small number of “usual suspects” who are pushing the water issue. The mayor says he’s held frequent news conferences and given many interviews where he’s shared updates on the plant since the outset.

But he insists there’s a limit on how much he can make public, because the city is exploring legal action.

He says he understands the citizens’ anger. He’s angry too — because the plant he was promised wasn’t delivered.

“It’s like buying a car and bringing it home and the engine won’t start,” Angers said.

Eric Bonfanti and Elizabeth Grégoire say they don’t see an end in sight for the boil-water order they’ve been living under in Shawinigan-Sud for four months. (Susan Campbell/CBC)

As to whether mistakes were made, Angers is clear. ”We know it wasn’t the city council that made the decisions here. There are all kinds of firms, experts who make the decisions.”

He says Shawinigan took advice from people who should have been able to avoid the situation the city finds itself in.

“For 40-something million, we never thought we’d be stuck with the problems we have now.”

A change of tone from the city

Shawinigan seemed to finally change tack last week, possibly in response to the clamour for transparency.

For the first time since the problems began, the city invited media to visit the Lac à la Pêche plant with the expert consultant leading the refit. They also published a timeline for the installation and testing of the new filtering elements.

In the city’s communiqué, André Lahaye, the consulting engineer, calls the timeline “optimistic” but possible — if everything goes well.

Speaking to Radio-Canada, Shawinigan’s mayor called the scenario “realistic” and said he’s convinced the plant will be operational by the end of June, and the boil order lifted at the beginning of July.