British Columbia

B.C. First Nations village evacuated after blue-green algae found in water source

About 60 people from the Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w First Nation have been evacuated to Alert Bay after blue-green algae was found in their well water.

Chief Willie Moon of the Dzawada̱ʼenux̱w First Nation says they won't return until it's completely safe

A building in the Dzawada'enuxw First Nation community. ( Dzawada'enuxw First Nation Bulletin (Facebook))

A small Indigenous community based in the South Coast community of Kingcome Inlet, B.C., has been evacuated after blue-green algae was found in its well water.

Chief Willie Moon of the Dzawada'enuxw First Nation says the decision was made last Thursday, Feb. 13, to evacuate around 60 people after tests from the First Nations Health Authority confirmed the presence of cyanobacteria. 

"Last summer people were complaining about the smell of the water," said Moon. "We don't know how long we've been exposed to this bacteria."

The Canadian Centre for Disease Control says blue-green algae are microscopic organisms that live in all types of water and thrive off sunlight and warm environments. As the bacteria die, the water may smell similar to "rotting plants."

Cyanobacteria has been found in hundreds of lakes across Canada in recent years, and it's unclear what's been increasing its prevalence.

HealthLinkBC says the bacteria can produce several kinds of toxins that can be harmful to humans. People are exposed to blooms, which can last anywhere from days to months, by drinking the water or getting it on their skin.

Symptoms from being exposed include headaches, fever, vomiting, cramps, diarrhea and blistering. HealthLinkBC says boiling the water will not remove the toxins, and people should call a health-care provider if they think they've been exposed.

Moon said a community manager notified the First Nations Health Authority in January after there were a number of health complaints in the village, from people experiencing flu-like symptoms.

"We have too many young children and elders, [so] we didn't want to take a risk," said Moon. 

Dzawada’enuxw First Nation Hereditary Chief Willie Moon says around 60 village members have been evacuated to Alert Bay, after blue-green algae was found in the community's well water. (Tamo Campos/YouTube)

An emergency team was pulled together last Thursday, and the elders took a river boat four kilometres to a helicopter landing dock, where they were airlifted to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island off the coast of Vancouver Island. 

Moon says most of the community — 53 members — are currently staying in three hotels in Alert Bay, while a handful have stayed behind to assist FNHA members and Indigenous Services Canada representatives in an investigation.

"Why it's in our system, we're at a loss and we're trying to figure it out," said Moon, adding that the village has never had an issue like this before. 

A statement from Indigenous Services Canada says ISC officials had travelled to the village prior to the evacuation to complete infrastructure upgrades to the water system. It says officials are currently assessing the interim water filter that was installed, and continues to "explore the cause of the contamination and find a solution."

The statement notes that ISC is funding the hotel costs, meals and per diems for the residents while they are unable to return home.

Moon said that he wouldn't encourage anyone to return "until [the FNHA] can guarantee me 100 per cent that our people will not be infected by the water."

With files from Kathryn Marlow