Attawapiskat declares state of emergency over water quality

The Attawapiskat band council in northern Ontario has declared a state of emergency after tests showed tap water had potentially harmful levels of byproducts of the disinfection process created when chlorine interacts with high levels of organic materials in the community's water source.

Tap water shows potentially harmful levels of disinfection byproducts

Nigel Nakogee, 17, holds a sign in front of the Attawapiskat band office on Tuesday, protesting the community's water quality problems. (Rosie Koostachin/Facebook)

The Attawapiskat band council in northern Ontario has declared a state of emergency after tests showed tap water had potentially harmful levels of trihalomethanes (THMs) and haloacetic acids (HAAs) —  byproducts of the disinfection process created when chlorine interacts with high levels of organic materials in the community's water source.

The community has a separate system specifically for its drinking water supply that is filtered through a reverse-osmosis system which is distributed through two watering stations where community members can fill up jugs. 

While still safe, the drinking water is starting to register rising levels of THMs and HAAs. 

Attawapiskat resident Adrian Sutherland said he was irked Sunday after seeing a tweet from Environment Minister Catherine McKenna praising the purity of Ottawa's city water while his community faced an advisory warning that their own water could be harmful. 

"When I saw that tweet … I felt really angry," said Sutherland.

Sutherland tweeted a photo of himself wearing a respirator mask to make his point.

Adrian Sutherland, an Attawapiskat resident, tweeted a photo of himself wearing a mask to make a point over the community's water quality. (Adrian Sutherland/Twitter)

Attawapiskat, located about 490 kilometres north of Timmins, Ont., is a fly-in community connected by an ice road to Moosonee, Ont., in the winter.

Attawapiskat Chief Ignace Gull said he is worried about the state of the drinking water.

Gull said he asked officials with Indigenous Services Canada during a teleconference call on Monday to provide free bottled water to the community of 2,000, because many can't afford to purchase supplies from the local Northern Store. 

Gull said he is frustrated with Ottawa's fragmented approach to dealing with the community's long-standing water issues.

"Attawapiskat should be drinking the same quality of water the people in Ontario and Canada take for granted," he said. "We shouldn't be going through this kind of stuff, to declare a state of emergency. If this happened in Timmins, they would deal with it the same day."

Warning over tap water quality

Attawapiskat residents have been warned to limit their time in the shower and not use hot water while washing because it opens the skin's pores, said Sutherland. 

He said residents have also been warned not to wash their food with the tap water and to ventilate a room whenever tap water is running because THMs and HAAs can get into the air. 

"Everybody is worried, they are very concerned and wondering what is going to happen," he said.

"We want to know how we are going to deal with this. We want answers."

Prolonged exposure to THMs and HAAs can cause skin irritation and could increase the risk of cancer, according to a consultant report prepared for the community.

THMs and HAAs cannot be cleared through boiling water.

Attawapiskat held a band meeting on the issue this past Friday and informed residents of the water situation.

Nigel Nakogee, 17, speaks with Attawapiskat Chief Ignace Gull in front of the band office on Tuesday. (Raphael Wheesk/Facebook)

On Tuesday morning, Nigel Nakogee, 17, protested outside the band office with a sign made of plywood carrying a message on both sides. One side read, "I am Canadian," and the other read, "Act now, be the leaders."

Nakogee said he protested at the band office on behalf of the community's young people and to urge the band leadership to find a permanent solution to Attawapiskat's water problems.

"I feel kind of disappointed and really upset that the youth and the people in the community are not getting the help that they need now," said Nakogee.

He said there are a lot of concerns about the health impacts of the chemical byproducts in the water. He said most homes in Attawapiskat don't have exhaust fans to get rid of the harmful chemical vapours emitted by the tap water.

Nakogee also spoke with Gull about what the band leadership plans to deal with the situation.

"I think there will be more protests if we don't get answers or solutions to deal with this matter efficiently." 

Inside the Attawapiskat water treatment plant in 2018. (CBC News)

Indigenous Services says it's a priority

A spokesperson for Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O'Regan said a health official with the department would be travelling up to the community as early as next week. 

O'Regan's spokesperson Kevin Deagle said the department would also be setting up a technical team to deal with the community's concerns.

"It's for sure a top priority, that is why we are acting very quickly on this," said Deagle.

Daigle said the department has spent about $1.4 million on the community's water system since 2018.

Sutherland said Attawapiskat continues to lurch from one crisis to another — housing, suicide and now water — and he's heard more talk from people looking to leave the community for good. 

"I am very concerned about my family right now. I don't know what to do," he said. "It's just one thing after another."

Attawapiskat has long struggled with THM and HAA levels due to the high level of naturally occurring organic material in the lake where the community draws its water. 

Gull said the issue goes back to the 1970s when Ottawa decided use the lake water, which was originally intended to only feed the school, homes for teachers and the nursing station, to supply the whole community. 

"It wasn't meant for the community," he said. "We didn't have indoor plumbing at that time."

 Attawapiskat's current water treatment plant was built in 2001.

The only lasting solution to the nagging water woes would be to change the community's water source to the Attawapiskat River — a conclusion reached by studies in 2008 and 2011.

A new water source is also part of a broader plan for a desperately needed expansion of the community, which is bursting at the seams and pushing its existing water and wastewater systems to a near breaking point.

"It's not just the tap water issue," said Gull.

 The cost of the expansion is estimated at about $300 million to $400 million over 20 years.


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him