Canadian Consulting Engineer

Kashechewan spurs federal action on water infrastructure for First Nations

The crisis over the contaminated water supply in the Kashechewan First Nation has jump started the federal governme...

October 31, 2005   Canadian Consulting Engineer

The crisis over the contaminated water supply in the Kashechewan First Nation has jump started the federal government to take action on a wider front in the area of providing safe water and wastewater infrastructure for Canada’s indigenous people.
In late October, people living in the Kashechewan First Nation community on James Bay were being airlifted out after serious problems including E.Coli bacteria had polluted their water supply. Attempts to rectify the problem with over-chlorination had only made the problems worse, producing skin irritations and stomach ailments. Photographs of children with impetigo and other illnesses were projected widely in the media, while Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty loudly denounced the situation, comparing conditions on the Cree reserve to those in Third World countries.
The problem with the water treatment plant had been reported by the Ontario Clean Water Agency in August 2003. The basic problem is the sewage lagoons, which are so full they constantly overflow, causing contamination in the supply.
Initial media reports reflected badly on the engineers who had designed the plant, because the reports indicated that the water supply intake pipe was downstream from the sewage lagoon. However, a spokesperson from the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, says that in fact the sewage lagoons are designed to drain away eastward into James Bay, in the opposite direction from the water intake pipe. What could have happened is that the sewage lagoon outflow ditch had become blocked, perhaps by a beaver dam, and as a result fecal material from the sewage lagoons may have found its way back up the waterway towards the intake. Another problem is apparently that an emergency system at the treatment plant had never been hooked up. The plant was also under-capacity, having been designed in 1996 for a community half the size of the present 1,900 people.
As residents of Kashechewan were being evacuated, the federal government’s Department of Indian Affairs issued a plan to immediately help the Cree community. First, the army was flown into Kashechewan on Sunday October 30 with a purification unit capable of pumping 50,000 litres of water per day. The government also said it would be initiating a detailed study by consulting engineers Keewatin-Aski Ltd. of Sioux Lookout to determine the quality of the source water, the flow of the rivers in the area, and the feasibility of temporarily relocating the water plant intake. The consulting engineers were also to investigate the state of the sewage treatment lagoon and recommend repairs.
Certified operators of water treatment plants had also been brought in to help.
A few days later the government announced it will also be strengthening and accelerating the $1.6 billion First Nations Water Management strategy for all First Nations reserves across Canada.
The government’s strategy includes upgrading and building water and wastewater facilities, introducing effective water quality regulation and monitoring, and the continued expansion of programs to train and certify plant operators.
The problems with Kashechewan are far from isolated. Currently over 100 First Nations must boil their water. In September the Auditor General had reported that the federal government’s approach to upgrading First Nations infrastructure was too slow and poorly coordinated.
In the June-July 2003 issue of Canadian Consulting Engineer, a feature article “Living Clean: First Nations and Water,” and an editorial “Comment,” took a comprehensive look at the problem. It followed a 2003 survey by consulting engineers for Indian and Northern Affairs of 740 water systems and 462 wastewater plants. That government report, published in May 2003, said that 29% of on-reserve water treatment systems posed a potential high risk, and 46% were medium risk.
See www.canadianconsultingengineer.com. Click on “Print Edition,” June-July 2003.


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