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Attawapiskat declares state of emergency over water quality

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Jorge Barrera · CBC News · Posted: Jul 09, 2019 4:00 AM ET | Last Updated: an hour ago Adrian Sutherland, an Attawapiskat resident, tweeted a photo of himself wearing a mask to make a point over the community’s water quality. (Adrian Sutherland/Twitter) Attawapiskat resident Adrian Sutherland said he […]


Jorge Barrera · CBC News · Posted: Jul 09, 2019 4:00 AM ET | Last Updated: an hour ago
Adrian Sutherland, an Attawapiskat resident, tweeted a photo of himself wearing a mask to make a point over the community's water quality. (Adrian Sutherland/Twitter)

Attawapiskat resident Adrian Sutherland said he was irked Sunday after seeing a tweet from Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna praising the purity of Ottawa's city water while his community faced an advisory warning that their own water could be harmful.

On Sunday, the Attawapiskat band council declared a state of emergency after tests showed the water coming out of the taps had potentially harmful levels of trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs) — byproducts of the disinfection process created when chlorine interacts with high levels of organic materials in the community's water source.

"When I saw that tweet ... I felt really angry," said Sutherland.

Sutherland tweeted a photo of himself wearing a respirator mask to make his point.

The community has a separate system specifically for its drinking water supply, filtered through a reverse-osmosis system, which, while still safe, is starting to register rising levels of THMs and HAAs.

Attawapiskat residents have been warned to limit their time in the shower and not use hot water while washing because it opens the skin's pores, said Sutherland.

He said residents have also been warned not to wash their food with the tap water and to ventilate a room whenever tap water is running because THMs and HAAs can get into the air.

"Everybody is worried, they are very concerned and wondering what is going to happen," he said.

"We want to know how we are going to deal with this. We want answers."

Prolonged exposure to THMs and HAAs can cause skin irritation and could increase the risk of cancer, according to a consultant report prepared for the community.

THMs and HAAs cannot be cleared through boiling water.

Attawapiskat band leaders met with officials with Indigenous Services Canada to discuss the issue on Monday. Attawapiskat Chief Ignace Gull said that the band council would be meeting on Tuesday to discuss next steps.

"We will have a plan of action," he said.

Attawapiskat held a band meeting on the issue this past Friday and informed residents of the water situation.

Inside the Attawapiskat water treatment plant in 2018. (CBC News)

Indigenous Services says it's a priority

A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan said a health official with the department would be travelling up to the community as early as next week.

O'Regan's spokesperson Kevin Deagle said the department would also be setting up a technical team to deal with the community's concerns.

"It's for sure a top priority, that is why we are acting very quickly on this," said Deagle.

Sutherland said Attawapiskat continues to lurch from one crisis to another — housing, suicide and now water — and he's heard more talk from people looking to leave the community for good.

"I am very concerned about my family right now. I don't know what to do," he said. "It's just one thing after another."

Attawapiskat has long struggled with THM and HAA levels due to the high level of naturally occurring organic material in the lake where the community draws its water.

The only lasting solution to the issue would be to change the community's water source to the Attawapiskat River — a conclusion reached by studies in 2008 and 2011.

But the change would cost millions of dollars.

"It would require a whole new water treatment plant to deal with the chemistry of the river," said Sutherland.

Attawapiskat's current water plant was built in 2001.

About the Author

Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him jorge.barrera@cbc.ca.

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