Municipalities increasingly 'on the hook' for damages resulting from poorly maintained water and sewer pipes



    TORONTO, March 1 /CNW/ - Increasingly, Canadian homeowners and businesses
are successfully suing municipalities for damages resulting from sewer and
watermain failures, and local governments had better wake up to the fact that
their aging underground pipes pose serious risk of liability.
    That's the conclusion of well-known Toronto environmental lawyer Dianne
Saxe who reviewed recent statutes and case law. In her report, commissioned by
the Ontario Sewer and Watermain Construction Association (OSWCA), she says
municipalities face civil suits and even quasi-criminal prosecutions if they
fail to adequately inspect, maintain, repair and replace their aging
underground infrastructure.
    "This may come as shock to many municipalities because they believe they
are protected by statutory authority and statutory immunity. Not so," notes
Saxe. Her paper cites several cases where municipalities (such as Ottawa,
Kenora, Stratford, Port Alberni, Thunder Bay and Gloucester) have been held
responsible for property damage resulting from sewer and drain backups and
broken water mains.
    In many municipalities, the sewer and water pipes have not been repaired
or replaced on a timely basis. The water infrastructure deficit in Ontario has
been estimated at between $11 and $18 billion. In many cases, the pipes have
long surpassed their maximum life expectancy. In Toronto, for example, about
500 kilometres of pipe are over 100 years old and the average age of Toronto
pipes is over 50 years old. Other Ontario municipalities have water systems of
comparable age.
    "The underground water and wastewater infrastructure has suffered from
decades of neglect," said Frank Zechner, Executive Director of OSWCA. "When
budgets are tight, it is tempting for local politicians to defer inspections,
maintenance, repair and replacement of pipes. But now they may end up paying a
far bigger price by ignoring the problem."
    According to Saxe, municipalities providing water and sewer services owe
a duty to take reasonable care in construction, maintenance and operation of
the system. If they breach this duty of care, they become vulnerable to claims
of negligence.
    Water and sewer pipe failures can cause damages such as flooded homes and
businesses and disrupt other vital services. In Toronto last year, for
example, two separate sinkholes had estimated repair costs of several million
dollars each, quite apart from the disruption to homeowners and the lost
business of nearby stores and restaurants. Another failed water main flooded a
telephone control room and knocked out phone service for thousands of
customers for almost a week.
    As well, these malfunctions may result in violations of federal and
provincial laws, such as the Fisheries Act and Ontario's Environmental
Protection Act which prohibit spills of contaminants, including sewage, into
lakes and rivers. In these cases, municipalities have been convicted of
quasi-criminal offences.
    In high-rise condominiums and apartment buildings, water sprinkler
systems are the first and often the only line of defence against fire. If the
water system is compromised because of a negligent break in the main, Saxe
says the municipality may be held responsible for damage and even injury.
    Poorly maintained pipes may also run afoul of other statutes. For
example, Ontario's Safe Drinking Water Act mandates that potable water must
meet prescribed quality standards. The Ontario Water Resources Act requires
sewage works to be maintained in good repair at all times.
    "Cities and towns can not hide behind statutory immunity," states
Zechner. "Unless municipalities begin to address this very serious problem,
they're going to be facing a growing number of lawsuits, class actions, and
charges in the future."

    OSWCA has been representing sewer and watermain construction contractors
across the province for more than 35 years, and currently serves over 700
member companies. It is a champion of environmental protection and best
practices in safety and water system management.

    Go to www.oswca.org to view the full report.




For further information:

For further information: Frank Zechner, OSWCA, (905) 629-7766 (office),
(416) 319-2004 (cell); Robert Stephens, Dena Fehir, PR POST, (416) 777-0368

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ONTARIO SEWER AND WATERMAIN CONSTRUCTION ASSOCIATION

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