Nfld. & Labrador

'The water has been making people sick': Rural N.L. leaders weigh in on widespread boil orders

Leaders of small Newfoundland and Labrador towns say water in their communities is so unreliable that in some cases, it's made residents ill — and while government says it's slowly working on fixes, there's no clear end for these boil advisories in sight.

1 in 10 people in N.L. are under a boil-water advisory

A hand fills up a glass from a sink.
Fresh, clean water isn't readily available to one in 10 people in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Leaders of small Newfoundland and Labrador towns say water in their communities is so unreliable that in some cases, it has made residents ill.

While government says it's slowly working on fixes, there's no clear end for boil advisories in sight.

Black Tickle, a community on Labrador's south coast, has been under a chronic boil order for years, says Todd Russell, president of the NunatuKavut community council. The unpotable water has meant widespread disease among the locals, he said.

"There's been many, many documented cases of gastrointestinal illnesses or diarrhea," said Russell on Wednesday.

"These types of waterborne illnesses have been very prevalent in Black Tickle."

As reported by CBC News earlier this week, about 160 communities across the province are under a boil-water advisory because their public water systems are supplying unclean or unsafe drinking water. Black Tickle, with a population of 87 as of last year, is just one of them.

In nearby Rigolet, Mayor Charlotte Wolfrey says mixing lake water with chlorine creates carcinogenic compounds such as trihalomethane. A 2009 government study showed Rigolet was among 42 communities across the province that had "major" issues with the chemical.

Even when the water's treated, Wolfrey points out, it still poses a danger.

Charlotte Wolfrey, mayor of Rigolet, says boil advisories persist in Labrador and aren't easily fixed. (Eldred Allen/Bird's Eye Inc)

Amy Coady, president of Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador, said it's a known issue.

"It affects everybody. When you talk about clean, safe drinking water, it's a basic human right," she said.

Coady, like other rural leaders who spoke to CBC News about water insecurity, acknowledges the main issue at hand: maintaining water treatment systems for shrinking tax bases scattered across a vast landmass is no easy feat.

But there are other solutions.

Some towns, such as Wabana on Bell Island, have installed a potable water dispensary. It's essentially a heated shed in the middle of town where residents can access drinking water.

"You don't have to go full scale," Coady said.

Wabana Mayor Gary Gosine stands in front of a potable water dispensary in 2019. The dispensary supplies fresh water to hundreds of residents on Bell Island. (Malone Mullin/CBC)

Bonavista MHA Craig Pardy has another proposal: communities with enough people to remain viable income-generators for at least the next two decades can take out a loan.

He points to Newman's Cove as an example. Pardy said he first floated the idea that over a period of 15 years, residents could pay off a $1-million loan to fix the water system. Broken down between households and over time, he said, could make the endeavour affordable and secure clean water within a year.

"I would look at some kind of concept where you do have small communities … viable for decades to come — this would be one option," Pardy said.

"I would say we're long overdue for a plan."

In a statement to CBC News on Wednesday, the Department of Environment and Climate Change called ending the advisories a "priority," and said its reduction initiative had lifted long-term boil-water advisories in five towns to date.

The province also provided funding for about 300 water projects over three years, at a cost of $100 million, the department said. 

A bathtub filled with brown water.
Residents under a boil advisory sometimes deal with discoloured, gritty and unsanitary water supplied by municipalities. (Submitted by Ralph Strickland)

Coady, though, is looking to a broader plan — one that involves regionalization in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. She said advisories aren't going away otherwise, because of aging communities, aging infrastructure, climate change, contamination and fluctuating water levels.

"We need to pool resources. We need to think together and find solutions," she said. "That burden cannot be on the residents all the time."

Russell, too, says clean water is top of mind.

"Water's so fundamental to our well-being … we have a right as human beings, as people, to safe, clean drinking water," he said.

"It is totally unacceptable that we have our people in these circumstances."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Malone Mullin is a reporter in St. John's who previously worked in Vancouver and Toronto. News tip? Reach her at

With files from Adam Walsh and CrossTalk