Thunder Bay·Updated

Neskantaga First Nation evacuations continue as community awaits new water pump

More than 100 residents of Neskantaga First Nation have been flown out of the community over health concerns brought on by last week's failure of a water pump.

Pump broke down on Thursday, leading community to declare a state of emergency

Neskantaga First Nation has declared a state of emergency after its water pump broke down last week. (Christina Jung/CBC)

More than 100 residents of Neskantaga First Nation in northwestern Ontario have been flown out of the community over health concerns brought on by last week's failure of a water pump.

The pump broke down on Thursday, and while it was far from a complete water treatment system — Neskantaga has been under a boil water advisory for 25 years — the pumping system did provide some chlorination for the community's water, allowing it to be used for personal hygiene, said Chief Chris Moonias.

Now, with the pump inoperable, the water supply is completely untreated, Moonias said, adding that some homes can't get running water at all.

"We've got some people with skin rashes, and ... stomach problems, headaches," Moonias told CBC News on Monday. "That's what we've been seeing so far, anyway."

On Saturday, Neskantaga, which is about 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, declared a state of emergency due to the water pump's failure, requesting support for emergency evacuations.

That request was denied by Indigenous Services Canada, meaning the community is handling the evacuations on its own.

Moonias said 99 people were flown out of the community on Sunday. Further flights were scheduled for this week.

Indigenous Services Canada deputy minister Valerie Gideon said the community's request for emergency evacuations was denied for a number of reasons.

"We've offered, of course, support to the community, for the community members," Gideon said. "Because there are no immediate health or safety risks to the community members, the department's advice to chief and council was to minimize disruption to community members, knowing that this issue could be repaired in a very short time frame."

Moonias disputed that, saying that the determination there were no health risks was made by a federal environmental health officer who didn't visit the community. He added that the last contact he's had with Ottawa over the issue was a conference call on Sunday.

"We wanted someone to come in right away when had the state of emergency ... and assess the water as the time goes so we can make necessary decisions," he said. "Nobody came in and so we had to ... evacuate."

Federal officials said Monday that information from the Matawa Chiefs Council said that the most recent tests done by the water plant operator in the community showed no bacterial contamination by E. coli or Coliform bacteria, the most common culprits for bacterial infections in water; Moonias said the community doesn't have the necessary equipment to properly test for contaminants.

New pump on the way

Gideon said Neskantaga residents are being told to boil the water for one minute, after which it will be safe to consume or use for personal hygiene. The government said it is also providing bottled water to the community; officials with Indigenous Services Canada said that amount was to increase on Monday.

Further, Gideon said a new water pump has been sourced, and is expected to be installed and operational by Wednesday.

She said an environmental health officer will be in the community Tuesday to perform water tests and technical staff are being dispatched to ensure the new pump will operate properly.

The community's school remains closed, Moonias said. Indigenous Services Canada said the nursing station is open and nurses "continue to monitor and respond to the situation."

Moonias said he's hoping the pump arrives Wednesday and that community members can return as soon as possible, but he's concerned about residual bacteria left behind after several days of the system being down.

Work, meanwhile, is continuing on a new water treatment plant for Neskantaga, and the hope is to have it operational by mid-October.