Thunder Bay·Audio

Grassy Narrows First Nation declares emergency over bad water

A state of emergency will remain in place at Grassy Narrows First Nation in northern Ontario until the community gets answers about the chemicals found in its tap water, says deputy chief Randy Fobister.

Uranium, potential cancer-causing agents found in samples, First Nation says

Grassy Narrows First Nation declared a state of emergency on Thursday because of long-standing problems with its drinking water. (Jody Porter/CBC)
Bill: Coming up...Tapping into the toxic frustrations in Grassy Narrows. We'll find out why the First Nation is asking questions about the safety of its water. 3:39
A state of emergency will remain in place at Grassy Narrows First Nation until the community gets answers about the chemicals found in its tap water, says deputy chief Randy Fobister.

The First Nation, also known as Asubpeechoseewagong, is located about 100 kilometres north of Kenora, Ont. and has been under a boil water advisory for more than a year, but new concerns are emerging about the extent and longevity of the problems.

Grassy Narrows First Nation Deputy Chief Randy Fobister says his community wants answers about the chemicals present in its drinking water. (
Documents obtained by CBC News show turbidity in drinking water at Grassy Narrows at 120 times the Ontario guidelines and the presence of potentially cancer-causing disinfectant by-products (DBPs) that may not be removed by boiling.

"Enough is enough," Fobister said. "We've been asking questions, we've been asking the federal government to upgrade our water plant.  You know the people are not going to drink this toxic water another day."

The community's water plant is about a decade old and has never functioned properly, but the First Nation can't afford to fix it, and there is no funding available from the federal government, he said.

The presence of DBPs came to light as part of an investigation into whether mercury was making it into drinking water at Grassy Narrows.

'Huge concern'

"We're very familiar with the mercury situation we have, that mercury is a very powerful poison. Now these are added ones," Fobister said. "So that was a very huge concern in our tap water."

Many residents of Grassy Narrows suffer the health effects of mercury that was dumped in the local waterways 50 years ago.

A 2001 risk assessment of the water system at Grassy Narrows by the Bimose Tribal Council showed the presence of the same problems with turbidity and DBPs noted in a 2015 letter to the chief from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change.

Uranium is also present in well water used by some residents at Grassy Narrows. A 2011 report commissioned by the (then) Department of Indian Affairs states the well water fails to meet the required health guidelines because of uranium.

The Health Canada website shows a Do Not Consume order was issued for the well water system at Grassy Narrows in 2013. 

A spokesperson for Health Canada told CBC News that the department has a mandate to work in partnership with First Nations on water quality issues, but it is up to chiefs and councils to determine when to declare water advisories.

Fobister said he notified Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada earlier this week that the community was declaring a state of emergency and that bottled water will be trucked in from Winnipeg until people are assured of the safety of their water.

It'll cost about $50,000 per month to deliver water to 240 homes once a week, he said.

That money, Fobister said, could have been better spent fixing the water plant and answering the community's questions.

CBC News asked Aboriginal Affairs for a response to the state of emergency at Grassy Narrows. A spokesperson did not meet our deadline.