A group of First Nations chiefs in Atlantic Canada is blasting the federal government for what it sees as a lack of action in fixing the yearlong water problem in Potlotek First Nation in Cape Breton.

"Why nothing was done to come up with a plan or execute a plan to solve this problem is very frustrating," said John Paul, executive director of the Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs Secretariat.    

The group is a policy research and advocacy organization that looks to develop alternatives to federal policies.

On Monday, residents of Potlotek were told not to drink or wash with tap water after Health Canada said concentrations of manganese and iron exceeded the "esthetic objectives" set out in Canada's guidelines for drinking water quality.

Protests and promises

A year ago, members of the community gathered to protest the brown, smelly water coming out of their taps. At that time, the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs promised a new treatment system.

So far, the department has spent well over $800,000 on repairs to the existing system but the problems persist. It said design work is underway for a new water-treatment system, but won't say how long before the facility is built.

Paul said that still doesn't help the people of Potlotek.

"How acceptable is it in any community to have poor, very, very poor quality water every year," he said.

"Not just for a few days but for months at a time. Your children have to wash and bathe and do laundry … every family, every day uses water in their household to do very basic things."

test VVF water treatment system by Brewal Ireland Ltd.

Brewal Ireland Ltd. has brought a test system to Potletek to see if it can reduce iron and manganese levels in water with its patented technology. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

The band has now turned to a small Irish company in an effort to secure clean water. Employees of Brewal Ireland Ltd., which installs water filtration systems, were in Saskatchewan working on a new system last year when they heard about the situation in Potlotek and offered to help, Paul said.  

They are working on a "test rig" to see if the system will work in Potlotek. As far as Paul knows, that work is being done free of charge. If the system works and the reserve wants it installed, the company will start charging, he said.

Les Walsh, with Brewal, said in Ireland his system has removed 90 per cent of the manganese and iron from water sources it has treated. Walsh said the filtration system uses patented "veritable velocity technology."

If the system works, Walsh will go back to Ireland and build a custom unit for Potlotek. He couldn't say how long that will take.

water treatment plant in Potlotek First nation

The Potlotek water treatment plant will try running the water through limestone to improve its quality. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

Potlotek's water-treatment operator, Alec Marshall, is also working on a solution — a treatment system that will run water through limestone.

"All we're waiting for now is the limestone to put into the tank," he said.

Marshall hopes the limestone will arrive by Friday. If it does, he said, the system should bring the iron and manganese down to safe levels by Monday.

But he said it will only be a Band-Aid fix until a new treatment facility is built.

With files from Joan Weeks and Gary Mansfield