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Attawapiskat residents want Canadian military help to deal with water ‘state of emergency’

During an emotional community meeting Tuesday evening, residents of a northern Ontario First Nation grappling with water problems demanded their chief and council ask the Canadian military to step in.

Attawapiskat Band Coun. Rosie Koostachin said community members passed a resolution at the meeting calling on their band council to request Ottawa bring in the Canadian Armed Forces’ Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to provide clean water. 

Koostachin said the meeting lasted about five hours with at least 150 people attending and about 35 speaking out. 

“They were emotional, crying,” said Koostachin. 

“At the end we are focused that we are going to fight this together.”

Residents were told Friday their tap water had potentially harmful levels of trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs) — which are byproducts produced by the water treatment process when chlorine interacts with the high level of organic materials in the community’s water source.

Drinking water in Attawapiskat is supplied through a separate reverse-osmosis filtration system. Two watering stations in the community provide drinking water where residents fill up jugs to take home. 

While levels of THMs and HAAs are trending up in the drinking water, it is still safe to drink, according to recent testing done by the First Nations Inuit and Health Branch, which is part of Indigenous Services.

The DART team is often used to respond to international crisis zones that have been hit by natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. It is known for its ability to create drinkable water in almost any situation. 

Chief Ignace Gull said in an email to CBC News that the community wants the DART team deployed to Attawapiskat. 

“I’m working with my office staff on this,” said Gull. 

A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan’s office said department officials had not yet received an official request from the band council. 

The department plans to send a technical official up to the community next week and assembled a technical team to remain in regular contact with the community to deal with the ongoing situation.

State of emergency declared Sunday

Attawapiskat, a community of about 2,000 people about 500 km north of Timmins, Ont., is a fly-in community connected by an ice road to Moosonee, Ont., in the winter. The community has hit the national headlines several times over the last 10 years while grappling with housing shortages and a suicide crisis. 

The band council passed a band resolution Sunday declaring a state of emergency over its water situation. 

Gull told CBC News Tuesday that while he still uses the water at home, he also wants bottled water flown into the community to deal with widespread fears.

NDP MP Charlie Angus stands during question period in the House of Common in February. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)


Timmins-James Bay NDP MP Charlie Angus also spoke with community members and leaders during a teleconference Tuesday and wrote a letter to O’Regan Wednesday requesting bottled water be sent to the community and that the minister pull the levers to get the DART team to Attawapiskat.

“We need a short term and medium term plan,” said Angus. 

“This community has been plunged into crisis after crisis because the government will never step up and admit that the infrastructure in the community is very substandard and puts people at risk.” 

Health branch tests raised concerns

Attawapiskat has long struggled with the presence of THMs and HAAs due to the high level of naturally occurring organic material in the lake from which the community draws its water. The high levels of organic material require heavy chlorination of the water which then triggers the chemical byproducts.

The health branch wrote the band a letter June 21 that recommended the implementation of restrictions around the use of tap water as a result of tests that showed levels of THMs and HAAs exceeded Health Canada’s safety guidelines. 

Tests from April showed that THM and HAA levels hit 170 ug/L and 162 ug/L respectively in tap water for residents drawing from the end of the community’s water line. 

The results were above Health Canada’s safety limit of 100 ug/L and 80 ug/L, according to the letter from the health branch.    

Residents were told not to wash their food with tap water, ventilate rooms when they run tap water and limit time spent in the shower while refraining from using hot water because it opens the skin’s spores. 

Prolonged exposure to THMs and HAAs could cause skin irritation and a lifetime exposure to them could increase risk of some cancers. 

The tests also showed that THM levels in one reverse osmosis station for drinking water had steadily increased to 64 ug/l from 30.5 ug/L between October 2018 and May 2019, said the letter. The other drinking station saw THMs rise, with some fluctuations, over the same time period to 40.1 ug/L from 32.3 ug/L.

Facing an endless cycle of crisis

Koostachin said many people are worried Attawapiskat’s water could be connected to cases of cancer in the community.

“We have been living like this for a long time,” she said.

Attawapiskat band Coun. Rosie Koostachin, who teaches powwow dancing to kids and teens in Attawapiskat, says the community is dealing with a lot of emotion during the current state of emergency over water quality. (Rosie Koostachin/Facebook )

“Especially when it comes to the word cancer… it brings up a lot, especially now that it’s coming out, trying to figure out if it was probably the water that is making everyone sick.”

Koostachin said Attawapiskat has been gripped by repeated crisis for so long — suicide and housing — that the community is in a state of permanent trauma and this latest situation is unearthing a lot of emotion.

“Right now we are just waiting and helping each other, comforting each other,” she said.

“We are used to those things happening, because we are in one crisis after another. Sometimes emotions get really high and it goes down again.”

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