Another Ontario First Nation declares a state of emergency over water

Another fly-in First Nation in Ontario has declared a state of emergency over of its water quality.

Eabametoong First Nation, an Ojibway community that sits about 360 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, passed a band council resolution declaring a state of emergency Friday after water test results showed levels of trihalomethanes (THMs) between 122 to 182 per cent above Health Canada safety standards.

“We have made this decision and the letter has gone to the minister and we would expect some action to address this,” said Chief Harvey Yesno, in a telephone interview with CBC News.

“It is stirring up a lot of anxiety in our community members … it’s incumbent upon us as leaders to do something about it. We have no choice but to do this.”

Yesno said residents are also reporting a foul smell coming from the community’s tap water.

“We have been warning about taking long showers and washing dishes,” said Yesno.

A statement issued by the office of Seamus O’Regan, Canada’s Indigenous services minister, said they are monitoring the situation closely.

“When a community declares a state of emergency we take it very seriously,” the statement said.

Department officials are in close contact with the community to resolve the issues.

Attawapiskat, a Cree First Nation that sits near Ontario’s James Bay coast, declared a state of emergency last week after test results showed elevated levels of THMs in its water supply.

Independent test results in Eabametoong showed treated water had between 222 to 282 ug/L of THMs — primarily of chloroform — in the water between June 28 and June 30.

Health Canada’s regulations set 100 ug/L as the limit for human consumption.

THMs are a chemical byproduct of chlorine interacting with water containing high levels of naturally occurring organic compounds.

Eabametoong does provide drinking water through a reverse osmosis system at three stations in the community.

Yesno said he recently saw a grandmother, with children in tow, walking to one of the water stations pushing a baby stroller with empty water jugs.

“We are trying to help those who don’t have the means to transport the water,” he said.

Eabametoong, which has been under boil-water advisories for nearly two decades, is also waiting for a newly built $12 million water treatment plant to get hooked up, said Yesno.

However, Yesno said the contractor has said that the new plant would be pumping more water through the water system, creating more wastewater and putting more pressure on a key lift station which could cause a sewage overflow into the lake where Eabametoong draws its water.

Yesno said the community has asked the government to upgrade its wastewater lift station, which has overflowed in the past, for over 20 years, but has yet to receive the necessary funding.

Eabametoong faces infrastructure challenges

In addition to the need for a new lift station, the community also needs funds to insulate and hook up three new diesel generators to its power grid, which routinely faces outages that can also affect its water system. The generators were bought two years ago and are needed to provide continuous power to the community.

Yesno said Eabametoong has been hit by three power outages in the last ten days because its existing, overhauled generators easily overheat.

The wastewater lift station connects to a portable generator. Yesno said that with the new water plant, the portable generator needs to be manually turned on within 14 minutes of a power outage to get the pumps working or the community could face a massive backup — easy to do in the summer, but much more difficult in the winter.

Yesno said the community’s minor capital funds are quickly absorbed into maintaining the community’s housing situation, which is also straining under the pressure of population growth in this First Nation of about 1,500 people, leaving little for anything else.

Yesno said there are still six units in the community that do not have running water.

Eabametoong also has a waiting list with about 81 requests for new housing in the community, which averages a little more than six people per household. Ontario’s rate is at 2.6 people per household.

“It would take us almost 20 years to get around four per house,” he said. “If we had a sustained focus, we would have to build an average of 15 houses a year.”

But Eabametoong only has 10 serviceable lots left and needs to develop a brand new subdivision, which requires more funding from Ottawa.

“We are always just doing Band-Aid solutions,” he said.

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