Many treatment plants inadequate. Operators often lack training.

27/10/2005- In First Nations communities across Northern Ontario, few treatment plants can produce water clean enough to meet the province's tough new standards. Half the people who operate those plants have outdated training — or none at all. So it's no wonder, observers say, that so many in these generally poor and often remote communities are advised to boil water before they drink it or use it for cooking and washing. The Kashechewan Reserve, 450 kilometres north of Timmins, where nearly half the 1,900 residents are being evacuated for health reasons, might be worse than most. Tests earlier this month revealed dangerous E. coli bacteria in its drinking water. That problem — now rectified, Health Canada says — is currently encountered in only four other native communities among the nearly 900 throughout Canada. Kashechewan's situation is made worse by the fact its eight-year-old drinking water plant is downstream along the Albany River from its sewage lagoon outfall. 'That's a no-no,' said Mohammed Karim, an engineer with the Ontario First Nations Technical Services Corp., who co-ordinates training for treatment operators. 'No plant should be designed that way.' 'How that was designed is beyond me,' said Michael Nepinak, executive director of the decade-old corporation, which offers training and engineering support to First Nations. But in many ways, when it comes to water services, Kashechewan is like many other native communities: In Ontario, more than 50 are under boil-water advisories. The Canada-wide total is about 100.

From 1995 to 2002, the federal government spent at least $1.2 billion to improve drinking water quality in native communities. That included money to build or upgrade plants, improve maintenance and expand training. Four years ago, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada assessed 740 systems and concluded 29 per cent of them posed a potential high risk of poor water quality. Only 25 per cent were in the low- or no-risk category, the study's report says. The result was later confirmed by the federal auditor general. In 2003, Ottawa promised $600 million more over five years to deal with the problem. But those trying to cope with the issue say it's not enough. The nearly $2 billion spent or committed 'is a very modest amount compared to what it should be,' Nepinak said. Across Canada, 'it could be tens or twenties of billions.' Ottawa's estimate is less grand, but still substantial. The commissioner of the environment and sustainable development has suggested 'another $1.9 billion to clean it up,' said Ian Corbin, acting director-general of Indian Affairs' community development branch. Some money went into plants, like Kashechewan's, that were soon made obsolete by stringent water standards imposed after the Walkerton E. coli disaster. 'The biggest problem is that plants aren't working the way they're supposed to,' Karim said. Indian Affairs wants facilities to meet Ontario's post-Walkerton standards, but many of the recent plants 'were not built to meet the regulations. ... They're not capable of meeting the drinking water guidelines.'

On top of that, Ottawa hasn't provided funding to train all the operators, Karim says. There's enough for about half and it goes to those running high-risk plants. 'The other 50 per cent are on their own.' As well, spending is spread among several federal departments, Nepinak said. Health Canada notes that many First Nations, like other remote communities, often can't find or keep qualified operators. And boil-water advisories sometimes result from residents' complaints about the taste of bacteria-killing chlorine in drinking water 'which results in (the) community turning off the chlorinator,' ministry spokesman Paul Duchesne said in an email to the Toronto Star. Nepinak called Kashechewan — with its water treatment plant downstream from the sewage outfall — 'an anomaly.'
The American Water Works Association, based in Denver, says that arrangement 'is not uncommon,' and isn't a problem with effective sewage treatment. But the northern plant not only can't meet Ontario's new standards, but it also wasn't built to process the kind of water it receives, Karim says.

The Toronto Star http:// www.thestar.com