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State of emergency declared in Attawapiskat over contaminated tap water

BY Dan Isaac Jul 19, 2019

The problem shows no signs of slowing or improving

Attawapiskat’s chief and council called an emergency meeting July 5 to hear a presentation by engineer Rod Peters that gave residents cause for serious concern.

According to a test by Health Canada, the presence of trihalomethanes (THM) – a chemical by-product created when organic matter is present in water treated with chlorine – exceeds acceptable levels of concentration in the community’s tap water.

The problem shows no signs of slowing or improving according to Peters, who works for consultancy firm WSP Canada.

Residents haven’t consumed tap water since 2007, instead getting their drinking water from two reverse osmosis water “dispensaries” in the community. However, when TMH is present in water it can lead to health issues even when it’s not consumed orally. It also can’t be boiled out of water, as it’s a chemical issue, not bacterial.

Certain types of cancers are associated with prolonged exposure to THM, while skin irritation and complications are common.

Following the meeting, community members were advised to limit shower times, open windows while running taps, avoid bathing in hot water, and to not wash food. The chief and council declared a state of emergency in hopes of dealing with the issue.

“The presentation alarmed and frightened our people,” said Attawapiskat Chief Ignace Gull. “The water is not safe; it’s not being maintained properly due to lack of resources.”

Attawapiskat’s water contamination issue has also gone viral on social media.

A tweet by Attawapiskat resident Chelsea Jane Edwards, outlining what the community has been advised to do in the wake of the presentation, has been retweeted and shared over 1,000 times.

Midnight Shine frontman and Attawapiskat resident Adrian Sutherland posted a widely shared image of himself sitting in front of a water bottle while wearing a gas mask.

The Attawapiskat water crisis prompted several politicians to speak out in support of the community. Green Party leader Elizabeth May called the situation unacceptable, and NDP MP Charlie Angus wants to see the community’s water system completely overhauled or replaced.

A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada told the Nation that “the Government of Canada is working closely with the Attawapiskat First Nation to bring clean and safe water to their homes.” 

However, Gull characterized the response from the federal and provincial governments as status quo.

“We had a conference call with Indigenous Services, Health Canada and other ministries, but we haven’t any response,” Gull said. “Something needs to be done immediately to address the levels of chemicals in the water.”

Fixing the problem will require the federal and provincial governments to seriously invest in the community’s water infrastructure, said Gull.

According to Gull, the whole system needs to be addressed, from water intake to the treatment plant as well as the distribution system, and even the water dispensaries in the community. 

Peters’ presentation estimated it would cost $12.2 million to repair, upgrade and expand the community’s current water treatment plant, and a minimum of four years to do so.

However, the spokesperson from Indigenous Services Canada went on to explain that a “project to perform immediate repairs to the existing water treatment plant and distribution system is in its third year. The Department has approved $1,459,000 for the project. This work is currently underway in the community.”

Nonetheless, the health threat hasn’t been a priority for either the federal or provincial government.

“It’s been an ongoing issue for years, since before I was chief,” explained Gull. “Our existing infrastructure is aging and crumbling. It’s causing rashes when people take showers, especially young people. And we still need to use this water. I had a shower this morning.”

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Dan Isaac is a Mi'kmaq and Mohawk journalist with a BA in Creative writing from Concordia University. He’s been writing for the Nation since 2016.