Nfld. & Labrador

Bell Island's water looks like 'chocolate,' and residents are fed up

While the mayor says the tap water is technically safe to drink, even he doesn't want to — and a permanent fix could be years away.

Brown, red and yellow tap water safe to drink, says the mayor, but not many want to

Bell Island residents have been grappling with coffee-coloured tap water for years, but as the problem drags on, some are demanding action. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Carla Ash hardly remembers what it's like to step into the shower without a grimace.

"I got chocolate running out of my taps," Ash said. 

The 66-year-old Bell Island resident is one of many complaining they're fed up with what's coming out of their plumbing: a yellow, red or brown substance, often clotted with silt, that stains laundry and dishware.

Since she moved home in 2006, she's "yet to go to the tap to pour a glass of water for consumption," Ash said.

"I don't even give the dog the water from my taps."

Carla Ash says even on days the water runs clear, she won't drink what comes from her tap. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Even when the water runs clear, Ash adds, she doesn't trust that it's clean, forcing her to use the town's advanced drinking water system: a shed attached to a reservoir of filtered water, the bulk of which was paid for by the province.

Ash makes the trek there nearly every day to fill jugs for water she uses to clean, cook and drink.

"You're afraid because you don't know what's in it," she said.

"Quite frankly, I'm at my breaking point right now."

Bell Island residents fill jugs from the town's filtered water reservoir, requiring near-daily trips to stock up. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Ash isn't alone. A petition circulating online demands immediate help from governments to fix the supply, while other residents told CBC News they're tired of buying new clothes and bottled water.

Although Wabana has been under a boil-water advisory since 2002, Mayor Gary Gosine says, despite its sometimes suspicious colouring, the town's water is perfectly safe — pour a glass, and you'd only be ingesting slightly higher than normal levels of manganese.

But he, too, refuses to let it anywhere near his lips.

"I mean, even I wouldn't drink yellow-brown water," Gosine said.

Gosine says he agrees heartily with the petition's demands, and said he hopes the province is listening.

"We certainly need help," he said. "I'm for one saying, yes, people got the right to be frustrated."

Residents say they never know when the water coming out of their taps will look like this. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

But on a defunct mining island that hemorrhaged most of its population half a century ago, finding the tax base to fund a total replacement of the town's water lines — many of them relics from the boom era — is nearly impossible, Gosine said.

They're so decayed, he added, "probably the only thing keeping the pipes together is the soil in that ground."

According to Gosine, of the dozens of kilometres of pipes that feed the town's residences, Wabana's budget can only handle replacing about two to three kilometres a year.

Wabana Mayor Gary Gosine says he won't drink the discoloured water either, even though he insists it's perfectly safe. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

A system-wide fix would require someone with a bigger pocketbook to step in. For now, the town's plan is to keep tackling the worst segments as breaks in the line arise.

"We're probably a long ways away from getting [the whole system] ever repaired," he said.

Ash lugs jugs of clean water to her home on Bell Island. She says she hasn't taken a sip of her tap water since 2006. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Ash says she doesn't want to lay blame with council, but she thinks town officials could do more to lobby for residents like her.

"In this day and age … I should not have to be lugging water back and forth to my home for cooking, for drinking," she said.

"I just want the town — the mayor, the councillors — to work together and apply pressure where pressure needs to be applied.… Something has to change," she said.

"I'm not saying that's going to happen overnight. It's obviously going to take years to get these pipes and whatever up to code. But you gotta start somewhere."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Malone Mullin is a reporter in St. John's. She previously worked at CBC Toronto and CBC Vancouver.

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