Nova Scotia

Construction begins on long-awaited Potlotek water system

Members of the small Cape Breton community at the southern end of Bras d'Or Lake have been dealing with water quality issues for decades and are watching closely to see the results of the $6.16-million project.

New $6.16M water system expected to be in use by the fall of 2019

Chief Wilbert Marshall of Potlotek First Nation says it was important that people from the community be hired to work on the construction project.

The long-awaited construction of a new water treatment plant for Potlotek First Nation has begun. 

Members of the small Cape Breton community at the southern end of Bras d'Or Lake have been dealing with water quality issues for decades. They are watching closely to see the results of the $6.16-million project.

"It's been a long process," said Chief Wilbert Marshall in an interview at a Treaty Day ceremony Monday in Halifax. "We tried to go with the best system possible. We checked out so many avenues."

A construction contract with a Sydney-based company was signed on Sept. 19 and work at the site started the week after. 
People in Potlotek First Nation have long had to deal with water discoloured by iron and manganese. (CBC)

The new system will involve a new treatment plant, intake, underground pipes and water storage reservoir. The water source at a nearby lake will remain the same.

The new plant is expected to take between a year and 18 months to complete. Funding for the project is coming from Indigenous Services Canada, a federal agency.

The previous water treatment plant will keep operating until the new plant is finished.

In a statement, Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott said she was pleased to see progress underway on the new plant and that interim repairs to the existing system have been finished at a cost of $842,000. 

In the past, the community of 745 has undergone months of boil-water and do-not-consume advisories. Those have forced the band council to provide bottled water to the community and caused frustration and anger for community members. 
The aging water tower on Potlotek First Nation will be replaced next summer as part of the revamp of the water filtration system. (CBC)

Marshall is anxious to see results for his community members. 

"They'll believe it when they see it, when it's done I guess," he said. "I can't blame them. It happened before. We're hoping we did the right thing this time by choosing this new system."

"Exotic car" of water plants

The old plant was installed in 1999.

Marshall said that after the system was imported from Scotland problems soon became apparent. It was difficult to get replacement parts, which always had to be obtained from the original makers. 

This time, Potlotek's engineering firm made sure that the plant would use modern technology in service in many other municipalities in Nova Scotia. 

Mike Chaulk, who leads the water treatment team at CBCL Consulting Engineers, has been working on Potlotek's water plant since 2014. 
Engineer Mike Chaulk has been working on the Potlotek water treatment plant project since 2014. (CBC)

"The new system is really a complete reconstruction of the water system," Chaulk said.

"Foremost is the treatment plant itself. It's a brand new, state-of-the-art treatment plant with multiple forms of treatment. … It's designed to remove colour, it's designed to remove metals, it meets all the national standards for drinking water and should be reliable in the foreseeable future for the community."

The new plant will have two stages. 

The first is called a "dissolved air flotation plant," which is a common type of system in Nova Scotia. Municipalities such as Port Hawkesbury, Arichat, and New Waterford use dissolved air flotation, Chaulk said. 
Water entering the old Potlotek water treatment system. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

The second stage will address the high levels of iron and manganese in Potlotek's water, which have caused discolouration and black water in the past. Chaulk said the second stage is used in municipalities such as Pictou. 

Chaulk compared the old system to an "exotic car" which is difficult to service and to get parts.

Jobs in the community

For that reason, Marshall said Potlotek made it a condition of the contract that the band's construction company had to hire from within the community. 

"At least when something breaks down, you see the pipes and all that, at least the people in the community that worked on it, they know what was put in there and what was done," he said. 
The old Potlotek water treatment plant came from Scotland and, when it broke, finding replacement parts was difficult. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

Marshall said he's not sure yet how many jobs that will be, but his goal is that 70 per cent of the workforce on the water treatment plant should be from the community. He added that job creation is also important in the area. 

"Especially where we live, there isn't that many jobs. We have a lot of tradespeople," he said. 

Marshall said he's excited to see the project start, but after many years of struggle with water problems, he's tempering his expectations. 

"They can't blame us, though. Seeing is believing. So when it happens, the first glass of water — we'll see."

Read more articles at CBC Nova Scotia