Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Neskantaga First Nation says it is investigating the source of hydrocarbons detected in test results of its water after an oily sheen-like substance was found in the community’s reservoirs earlier this week, prompting it to declare a state of emergency and evacuate most residents.
In a Facebook post Friday, Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias said the remote Northern Ontario community’s drinking water remains unsafe “due to high levels of hydrocarbon” as indicated in a “preliminary report.”
More than 200 people were evacuated from Neskantaga to Thunder Bay this week after the unknown substance led to the shut down of the community’s water supply, which had already been reduced due to leaks in the distribution system.
The current crisis faced by the community, which has lived under a boil-water advisory since 1995, was declared a public-health emergency by the federal government. Indigenous Services Canada said it will cover the costs of the community’s evacuation.
Aaron Wesley, utilities manager for Matawa First Nations Management in Thunder Bay, said Friday that it was too early to eliminate any possible sources of the carcinogen. He said tests didn’t detect any benzene, toluene, ethylene and xylene, which is “usually a heavy indicator” of diesel and aircraft fuel. However, that can’t yet be eliminated either, he said. Matawa provides technical support for a group of nine First Nations in the region.
Mr. Wesley said further samples were collected this week and are being tested for a “food-grade oil used in water pumps” and that more samples will be collected from the treatment plant, distribution system and raw water on Monday.
It’s the latest in a string of delays and challenges, related to upgrading the water-treatment plant, plaguing the fly-in community 430 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. Community members and leaders are weary that they have had to live without clean, safe drinking water in their taps for close to 26 years.
Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller called the current crisis unacceptable and said his department is committed to working with the First Nation and its partners to get the project complete and the boil-water advisory lifted.
“There’s been some challenges with respect to the capacity of the wastewater system, which is a real concern. And as well as some leaks in the distribution system, which are also mentally concerning, because all the water has been leaking out,” Mr. Miller said.
He says the department has dedicated more than $16-million to Neskantaga’s water and wastewater upgrade project, double the original investment of $8.8-million first announced in 2017.
The plant was supposed to be ready in 2018, but a seemingly never-ending chain of events has prevented that from happening, including a broken water pump last September that resulted in another shutdown of water and a community evacuation. Months before that, the First Nation fired the contractor for not staying on schedule and hired a new one.
In a letter to Mr. Miller, Chief Moonias said he won’t send community members home until a number of demands have been met. These include ensuring that running water “be available from the taps on a 24-hour basis” and a commitment from Indigenous Services to determine whether it’s feasible to continue “repairing a flawed system” or better to proceed with a new distribution system.
Chief Moonias also called for immediate investigations into the “business practices of contractors, engineering companies, etc.” and “contributing factors to the current water and public-health crisis.”
In a statement Friday, NDP MP Charlie Angus called on Ottawa to “launch a full and transparent investigation into what the problems are, who built this system, and what it will take to bring fresh water to this community after 25 years.”
“The crisis at Neskatanga shows the absolute failure of the Trudeau government to get serious about its promise to end boil-water advisories,” Mr. Angus said.
When asked if there have been mistakes made along the way with respect to the Liberal pledge to end all advisories, Mr. Miller said he believes so.
“It was a tall task,” he said. “We didn’t appreciate the scope of what we needed to actually cover.”