By Dr. Hans Peterson
The first time I heard about Yellow Quill First Nation was in the spring of 1999. Carla Plotnikoff, an environmental health officer working for the Saskatoon Tribal Council, had tracked me down and wanted to tell me about it. “Yellow Quill is a community some two and a half hours northeast of Saskatoon and I fear for the health of its community members because the tap water is so bad,” she said.
She then went on to describe conditions that I had only associated with developing countries. I was skeptical. I had been instrumental in forming the Safe Drinking Water Foundation (SDWF) two years earlier. I had toured rural China and Thailand looking for drinking water issues that needed correcting. But Canada? I must admit I knew nothing about First Nation communities or issues. But, how bad could it be? We drove to Yellow Quill on June 19, 1999, and talked to the three band councillors who demanded an end to the by then, four-year boil water advisory.
We then followed water operator Robert Neapetung and engineering company representatives down to the water treatment plant. Robert explained that it was necessary to open the door of the water treatment plant and wait 5 to 10 minutes before going inside, as the smell of hydrogen sulphide was so bad. But, even when Robert thought it was okay to go inside, the plant still smelled bad.
The PLC system for the plant had not worked properly in years. Robert explained that he had to short-circuit it to backwash and run the filter. Before leaving I took a sample of the raw water coming into the water treatment plant. Not only did it look unbelievably bad, it reeked of rotten eggs and algae.
A closer look at the chemicals Robert used in the water treatment plant made me very concerned. The first chemical added to the water was Elimin-ox. This is a chemical that removes oxygen from the water in boiler plants. It contains a chemical that is a known carcinogen.
The next day I phoned the supplier and they were horrified to learn that this chemical was used in a water treatment plant. After I found this out I phoned Carla to tell Robert to immediately stop using the chemical.
Gaining perspective: Saskatoon water versus Yellow Quill water
The City of Saskatoon treats its water using many processes lasting about two hours to complete. At Yellow Quill the water treatment process took about five minutes. In that time Robert was expected to produce safe drinking water from a source that was more than 10 times poorer than the City of Saskatoon’s.
Saskatoon’s distributed water contains, on average, 25 particles per ml. Yellow Quill had distributed water that sometimes had more than 40,000 particles per ml. Put another way, if you drank a glass of Yellow Quill tap water you would consume 10 million particles per glass! The particles would be made up of dead algae, bacteria, protozoa and viruses.
Yellow Quill’s average particle levels were at times 1,600 times more than Saskatoon! Furthermore, Yellow Quill got its water from Pipestone Creek, a small watercourse that only flowed for a week or two in the spring. Also, an upstream community discharged its sewage lagoons into this creek at the same time Yellow Quill filled its water reservoir.