Chief Elaine Johnston looking over documents on Water Treatment Plant.

Chief Elaine Johnston looking over documents on Water Treatment Plant.

By Leslie Knibbs

Like other First Nations across this land, Serpent River First Nation (SRFN) has been dealing with water issues for some time, perhaps not as frightening as other communities across the north, but just as disturbing. Expectations were high following completion in 2015 of what was referred to as a “state of the art water treatment plant” by many. With a cost in excess of $13 million, the promise of potable water has yet to be delivered; members of this small community are still being advised to not drink the water or use it for cooking, in other words….a no consumption advisory is in place. So what went wrong here? Many community members are asking, having to use bottled water for cooking and drinking.

For background, back in March, 2014, citizens of SRFN were thankful to hear a water treatment plant was finally going to become a reality in their community after depending on community and individual wells for water, both of which did not have the capacity to service all members. With the promise of potable water from J.L. Richards and Associates, the contractors who oversaw the building and design of the treatment plant, then Chief Isadore Day told those attending a community meeting, “We know that water is a blessing and as Anishinabek, we hold water in sacred regard.”

At the March 4 ceremony to celebrate the building of a state-of-the-art water treatment plant Chief Day said, “It is our belief that water is a gift from Mother Earth. We must protect it for future generations. This is why we hold ceremony, to honour water and to maintain the highest appreciation for its value in sustaining human life. This is how important this project is to our people.”

Fast forward to September 23, 2015 when the water treatment plant was officially opened. There were a lot of happy faces at the grand opening, a whole lot of community members celebrated the new water treatment plant which promised clean uncontaminated drinking water. Telling everyone, “it’s a good day”, Chief Elaine Johnston welcomed community members and dignitaries at the new facility. Referring to the plant, she said, “It was thirty years in the making.”

Attending the opening was John Cannard, an associate with J. L. Richards, he said he was “most impressed with the strength of the community and how they got behind it with support.”

Cannard said the plant was “a unique design dedicated to providing fresh potable water to citizens.” Cannard told those attending because of the many streams entering the lake where the water is pumped from, his firm was confronted with a unique situation, the largest concern was the organic matter in the water from the many streams and streamlets. According to Cannard, the design used in SRFN originated from Scotland in the UK where there are many similar environments. Cannard said the SRFN design is also used in “swampy areas;” he emphasized the plant was totally effective in providing fresh clean water. As time would tell, Cannard’s largest concern was not unfounded, nor was the problem of organic matter resolved as shown after opening the plant in September 2015. The celebration on that day turned out to be short lived, shortly thereafter, residents were advised to not consume the water.

Following the opening and startup of the plant, a 14 day water testing trial began September 23, 2015. Little did anyone know at the time, the promise of potable or drinkable water was not to be the case from day one. Within the first 14 days, it was determined that Trihalomethanes (THMs) exceeded the acceptable level for drinking by nearly double. According to Chief Elaine Johnston, tests done by Testmark Laboratories indicated levels were between 170 and 190 during the test period, and, they were climbing. Since testing began, test results average 200 micrograms per litre of water to date, double the acceptable level.

THMs are not something found in surface water where water is drawn from, but rather is a contamination coming as a result of a breakdown in the filtration process. In other words, the plant was not doing the job it was meant to do….provide clean acceptable drinking water to the community. The acceptable level of THMs is 100 micrograms per litre of water. Readings of double the acceptable lever shown during the test period prompted the Chief and council to initiate a non consumption advisory against drinking water or using it for cooking.

In a communiqué to SRFN, Health Canada makes the claim the acceptable limit is “deliberately set low (100 micrograms per litre),” further to this, “there are no known health risks ever if the amount is two or three times higher than the guideline.” They cite Australia where the acceptable limit is considerable higher at 250 micrograms. Offering reassurance, Health Canada goes on to say, “it has been estimated over a lifetime (70 years) there will be about one or two additional cases of bladder cancer in every 100,000 people who drink water containing THMs.

On March 7, Chief Elaine Johnston said natural organics from the intake are breaking down membranes during filtration, causing the THM contaminant to enter the holding tanks contaminating the water. As a result of this breakdown, she said 20 modules of tighter membrane are being installed to prevent hydrolyzing of membranes currently used. In order to monitor the water quality, Chief and council are having tests done at not one but two separate labs for results to ensure accuracy. Further to this, the contractor has ordered a new tighter membrane called AFC 39 from Ohio as a permanent fix to the problem. Installation of AFC 39 is expected to be complete by June of this year to alleviate and permanently fix the problem.

When dealing with Health Canada in regards to the risk involved with THM, Chief Johnston said she is not satisfied with the response from one medical officer from Health Canada and has asked for a second opinion coming from another medical officer. She has asked for a community meeting with Health Canada, the engineers and the Contractor to explain what is going on and the possible risks. No date has been set yet. In the meantime, community members are advised to not drink or use the water for cooking. Boiling the water will not remove the THMs according to Health Canada. Chief and council are ensuring a ready supply of drinking water by delivering water once a week to residents and having it available at the Band Office for pick up. Chief Johnston said she believes Health Canada are “not taking our concerns seriously.”