If bureaucrats at the Fraser Health Authority (FHA) thought they could roll into Chilliwack and demand chlorination of the city's award-winning water without a fight, they were wrong.
Mayor Sharon Gaetz has accused Fraser Health of fear-mongering given there has never been a report of illness from municipal drinking water in Chilliwack and there have been just three isolated cases of E. coli in hillside reservoirs since 2009.
"[Fraser Health medical health officer] Dr. [Marcus] Lem is saying things like 'there is poo in your drinking water,'" Gaetz told the Times Wednesday. "That's not using science. We want them to come forward with science."
But Lem sticks by the word.
"It's diluted poo but it's still poo," Lem told the Times. "I don't want to be alarmist; I'm just saying this is what the standard is."
Lem said chlorination is inevitable and that Chilliwack is the largest city in Canada he is aware of that does not yet treat its water.
Community backlash to Fraser Health's edict has been fast and strong. Two separate online petitions were created, one by Bookman co-owner Amber Short and another by web developers Jake Reimer, Kim Reimer and Martin Raymond.
The latter petition had 1,400 signatures by noon on Wednesday and the two planned to amalgam-ate at the Reimers' site, www.chilliwackwater.com.
The Reimers-a married couple-run 360 Media with their partner Raymond. When they heard about the chlorination issue
they jumped into action, building a website in two-and-a-half days that Jake said would have taken them close to a month for a client.
"We want people to take this issue seriously because once you start chlorinating, you can't go back," Jake said.
"We have lived here all our lives," Kim said. "Our daughter drinks the water non-stop and we don't want her to be drinking chlorine."
Gaetz said the city spends millions of dollars on the drinking water system, there are 20 employees devoted to it and the city's water has been named best drinking water in Canada twice.
The issue began when Lem came to city council on Feb. 5 to say the city had to start adding chlorine to the water as a condition of its permit. He provocatively said that while he would drink the water, he wouldn't let his daughter do the same.
"The risk is very, very real," Lem said. Gaetz responded that Lem is unnecessarily creating fear among residents.
"Dr. Lem has frightened people in our community," Gaetz said. "He showed a shockingly limited knowledge of our water system and I'm surprised by that. I'm surprised he would be so bold."
Gaetz also pointed out that the main distribution system has never had E. coli detected since the city took over. There have been two incidents of E. coli on Little Mountain and one on Promontory, likely caused by animals defecating in hillside reservoirs.
There have been no reported cases of illness from the city's drinking water.
The city's hillside water systems serve just five per cent of the city's population and they function independently of the city's main distribution on the valley floor. The city has been chlorinating the water on Little Mountain since August 2012 because of the latest incident.
City staff have sent a letter to Fraser Health asking the authority to look at alternatives to full chlorination given the few incidents that have occurred did so in the hillside systems.
But Lem told the Times that what is logically possible isn't necessarily advisable for citizens. He also thinks that local water operators are doing a good job and that the contaminated water actually must have been pumped up into the hillside areas.
"We are not being heavy handed; we are just enforcing the law," Lem said. "I think the mayor is expressing civic pride and is trying to represent her community. But 80,000 men and women and children all deserve to have safe water and it is our responsibility to protect their health."
Gaetz said she hopes Fraser Health will listen to her concerns. She also said she is not surprised at the backlash in the community.
"I believe that people nowadays, if you mess with their food, with genetically modified food, they are wary. If you mess with their air, the outcry from the whole regional district around Metro's proposed incinerator, they are wary. And if you add chemicals to anything, especially something they need every single day of their life, something that Health Canada has issued warnings about the risk of colon cancer and bladder cancer, I'm not surprised at all."
A page on the city's website directs people to contact Fraser Health about the issue of chlorination of the drinking water, but Gaetz said the health authority is not responding.
"We are getting lots of complaints about Fraser Health not answering complaints to the public," Gaetz said. "People are not getting accurate information from Fraser Health. Apparently they were not prepared for that kind of public concern."
Council advised Fraser Health that the citizens of Chilliwack need to be given the opportunity to comment on the chlorination of their drinking water through a public consultation process.
Lem said the health authority hopes to work collaboratively with the city and that there is no timeline for chlorination to begin.