Two Ontario first nations declare states of emergency over DBPs in water

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Two Ontario First Nations reserves issued state of emergency declarations in early July over potentially harmful levels of trihalomethanes (THMs) in their water.

The Attawapiskat First Nation in the Kenora district of northwestern Ontario first raised alarms bells over potentially harmful levels of THMs and haloacetic acids (HAAs) — disinfection byproducts (DBPs) created when chlorine interacts with high levels of organic materials in a community’s water source. The reserve lies at the mouth of the Attawapiskat River on James Bay, and has been in the headlines in recent years for other crises, including housing and suicide.

Shortly after, the Eabametoong First Nation, an Ojibway community that sits about 360 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, issued its own alert following water test results that showed levels of THMs between 122% to 182% above Health Canada safety standards. THMs have been shown to increase risks for certain types of cancer.

The Attawapiskat First Nation held an emergency meeting last week to talk about the water crisis, resident Chelsea Jane Edwards explained on Twitter. She said that the reserve was told to limit showers and be mindful to crack open windows to avoid inhaling water vapour. She said they were also asked not to bathe in hot water as it opens pores and makes skin more vulnerable to DBPs. Finally, she said residents were advised not to wash food in the water.

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Another Attawapiskat resident, Adrian Sutherland, also drew attention to the water crisis on Twitter, after he saw federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna praising the purity of Ottawa’s city water while his community faced an advisory warning about THMs in the water.

Sutherland tweeted a photo of himself wearing a respirator mask to drive home his point. He tweeted to McKenna, stating: “Must be nice to have clean drinking water – thousands of indigenous people don’t even have clean water to bathe in never-mind drink. I don’t think it [sic] something to be proud of!”

A spokesperson with Indigenous Services Canada told CBC News that the department has spent about $1.4 million on Attawapiskat’s water system since 2018.

For the Eabametoong First Nation, the community is waiting for a newly-built $12 million water treatment plant to get connected. Officials say commissioning for the new plant could begin as soon as July 22.

The Eabametoong First Nation has been under a boil water advisory since 2001.

“The discovery of high levels of trihalomethanes, combined with ongoing issues with our water and wastewater systems, has forced us to declare a State of Emergency to protect the health of our community,” Chief Harvey Yesno said in a media statement released last week.

According to Indigenous Services Canada, the department paid $139,000 to Eabametoong over 2016-2017 for reverse osmosis equipment. The community has initiated an Emergency Response Plan and has been forced to rely on reverse osmosis units to draw water for drinking and cooking. Water drawn from household taps has contained a noticeable foul smell and taste, reserve officials said.

Eabametoong officials added that its new wastewater system will flow a greater capacity through the system, but the lift station at one end of the community is “too small to handle the upgraded capacity.” The main community sewage lift station, officials say, is overcapacity and subject to overflow into Eabamet Lake, which is the source of the community’s drinking water.

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