Dirty water angers St. Margarets residents

Residents of St. Margarets, an old Royal Canadian Air Force station near Chatham, are demanding answers from the provincial government about ongoing water quality problems.

Community under another boil water order, demanding answers from Department of Environment

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      Residents of St. Margarets, an old Royal Canadian Air Force station near Chatham, are demanding answers from the provincial government about ongoing water quality problems.

      The community has been under a boil water order since April 5 — one of many over the past several years, said Sherry Vallieres.

      She says officials have never explained why, but the water is routinely discoloured, some pets have died, and the taps occasionally run dry.

      Now, residents who volunteered on the local water and wastewater commission, overseeing water treatment and billing, have all resigned in recent weeks, forcing the Department of Environment to appoint staff to fill their seats.

      Sherry Vallieres says she has been drinking only bottled water since 2005 after years of problems with the tap water. (CBC)
      Vallieres says when the 65 homes went up for sale in the mid-1990s, they were considered a steal. Young families, investors and retirees snapped them up, thrilled to be able to afford their own home, she said.

      But they were promised the old infrastructure would be maintained, said Vallieres, who is at her wits end, ready to put out rain barrels instead.

      "You can't drink it. You can't wash your clothes. We're under a boil order. It shuts off," she said, citing Easter Sunday as the most recent incident of waking up to no water.

      There have been three such instances in the past month, said Vallieres. "There's a leak right now, and when it gets to the point where the leak drains the reservoir, we're going to be completely without water again," she said.

      We are aware that there have been some concerns about the water for St. Margaret's residents and have taken immediate action to resolve any outstanding issues.- Jennifer Graham, Department of Environment

      The Department of Environment is aware that there have been "some concerns about the water" in St. Margarets and has "taken immediate action to resolve any outstanding issues," spokeswoman Jennifer Graham said in an email to CBC News.

      "As such, the department has hired a new system operator, identified and repaired existing distribution system leaks, and has implemented a system to ensure sufficient water is available," said Graham.

      The department is also working with public health officials to lift the boil water advisory, and will begin seeking community members to replace the interim water and wastewater commission board "in the near future," she said.

      Cathy Jagger says she worries about another situation like Walkerton, Ont., where seven people died from an E. coli outbreak. (CBC)
      But residents like Cathy Jagger say no one wants to sit on the board because of the ongoing issues.

      "Some people have been here years and years and years, and they've paid a lot of money [quarterly] over those years to the water commission," said Jagger, who moved to the community in 2011.

      "What have they gotten back? What's the quality of what they've gotten back?"

      The residents have asked the Department of Environment for more information about what's wrong with their water, what needs to be done to make it safe, and who will pay for it, but say each update has been vague.

      "I can remember Walkerton," said Jagger, referring to the E. coli outbreak in the Ontario community in May 2000, which resulted in the deaths of seven people.

      "That was a real tragedy. And we may not be at that point yet, but as time passes, people may assume that the water is OK since we're not hearing an update saying, 'No, continue to boil your water.'"

      Michael Poirier says he's had seven birds die in the past seven years, but when he stopped giving his birds tap water, they stopped dying. (CBC)
      Vallieres, who has been drinking only bottled water since 2005, says her pets started getting sick a few years ago.

      "We lost a few ferrets and we were kind of wondering, so we switched them off the tap water and put them on spring water, so we'd go down to the spring or get bottled water," she said.

      Others in the community have similar experiences. Marc Poirier says his birds started experiencing seizures and died.

      "So we stopped feeding them water," said Poirier, who has lived in St. Margarets for seven years. "Once we stopped feeding them [the water], they stopped dying."

      Most residents now use bottled water to cook and drink, but still rely on tap water to bathe and clean.


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