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Risky water systems pose health threat to one-third of people on First Nation reserves

Investigation

Water systems at risk

Despite an election promise by Justin Trudeau to eliminate boil-water advisories on reserves within five years, data suggest the federal government will fall short of the objective without significant changes in its approach to rectifying the problem, Matthew McClearn reports

Water treatment operator Carl Shirt walks through the reverse osmosis units at the water treatment plant in Saddle Lake Alberta, July 21, 2016. Saddle Lake reserve gets its water from the lake, which is classified as surface water and INAC considers this a risky water source.

Water treatment operator Carl Shirt walks through the reverse osmosis units at the water treatment plant in Saddle Lake Alberta, July 21, 2016. Saddle Lake reserve gets its water from the lake, which is classified as surface water and INAC considers this a risky water source.

JASON FRANSON/For The Globe and Mail

One-third of First Nations people living on reserves use drinking water systems that threaten their health, an investigation by The Globe and Mail has found.

Roughly 57,000 people living on 101 reserves across Canada obtain water from treatment plants and pipe networks the government deem to be "high risk," an analysis of federal data shows. Although these systems are not necessarily producing unsafe water today – some are, some aren't – the government fears they could fail under adverse conditions, such as a sudden deterioration in source-water quality. Another 95,000 are served by "medium risk" systems located on 167 reserves.

Combined, that amounts to roughly one-third of the approximately 462,000 people living on reserves – or about 30 communities the size of Walkerton, Ont.

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In 2000, bacterial contamination in Walkerton's water system sickened more than 2,300 people and killed seven. Although the Walkerton tragedy prompted wide-ranging regulatory changes across Canada, this hasn't resulted in safe water for many reserves. Indeed, many First Nations water systems remain in shambolic condition.

Saddle Lake Cree Nation water-treatment operator Carl Shirt stands by the old water intake, which is no longer in use.

Saddle Lake Cree Nation water-treatment operator Carl Shirt stands by the old water intake, which is no longer in use.

JASON FRANSON/For the Globe and Mail

During his election campaign last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to eliminate boil-water advisories on reserves within five years. (Data from this summer show 158 drinking-water advisories were in place in 114 First Nations.) To understand the scope of this undertaking, The Globe pored over federal data and interviewed First Nations water operators and indigenous leaders, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada officials and third-party experts.

Health Canada recommends advisories when microbiological contamination of drinking water is suspected or confirmed and their prevalence has already been widely analyzed. But The Globe also studied an Indigenous and Northern Affairs database called the Integrated Capital Management System, which contains a decade's worth of risk assessments for individual First Nations water systems across the country. Acquiring it took six months of bureaucratic wrangling, and an appeal to the federal Information Commissioner.

The department's data suggest that without significant changes to its approach, the federal government risks falling far short of its objective.

How Ottawa determines the risk levels of water systems

Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) inspects water systems on most reserves across Canada each year. These inspections produce a risk rating between 1 and 10, expressing an opinion on the likelihood that the system may produce unsafe water under adverse conditions. These ratings are based on five weighted components:

  1. Quality and quantity of source water (10 per cent);
  2. The system’s design (30 per cent);
  3. How well the system is operated and maintained (30 per cent);
  4. Record keeping and reporting (10 per cent);
  5. Operators’ training and certification (20 per cent).

Any system scoring higher than 7 is deemed high risk. According to a 2011 report by Neegan Burnside, an engineering firm retained by the federal government to conduct a national assessment, such systems feature “major deficiencies” in most components. “Issues should be addressed as soon as possible,” the firm recommended. INAC indicates high-risk systems receive more attention and funding. In practice, however, systems may remain in the high-risk category for many years.

Medium-risk systems include those scoring between 4 and 7. These feature major deficiencies in one or two components and minor deficiencies in others. Low-risk systems score below 4 and are considered robust.

Certain problems, such as bacterial levels above regulatory limits, automatically trigger high-risk ranks. Should inspectors believe the calculated score does not adequately reflect their professional opinion, they may assign a higher score.

A high-risk system might be producing safe water at the time of inspection. (Systems producing hazardous water are typically subject to drinking-water advisories.) But high-risk systems are less able to cope with adverse conditions (flooding that contaminates source water, for example), while low-risk systems are better able to compensate.

- Staff

Each year, the department's engineers and consultants inspect virtually all centralized water systems in First Nations communities. They consider how plants are designed, operators' training and experience, quality of source water, record keeping and how the plant is being operated and maintained. The resulting data include a risk score between 0 and 10, showing the likelihood of the system producing unsafe water under adverse conditions. Those scoring above 7 are deemed to be "high risk," and are often (but not necessarily) already subjected to long-standing drinking-water advisories. Systems scoring between 4 and 7 present "medium risk," and can be seen as future candidates for advisories unless deficiencies are addressed. Systems scoring below 4 are low risk.

The provinces with the largest at-risk populations are Saskatchewan, Ontario and Manitoba.

The good news is that the department's data show the government has made gradual progress. Average risk scores across all reserves decreased roughly 20 per cent since 2010, from above 5 to about 4.

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The department directs resources to the highest-risk water systems. In 2006, for example, it identified 21 reserves with particularly hazardous water systems and secured $60-million over two years from the federal budget to fix them. The average risk score among these reserves fell from about 7 in 2006 to 4.1 today – a significant improvement. (In six communities, the situation remained largely unchanged. Only one got worse.)

The bad news is that new infrastructure takes time. The department says it typically takes three years to move through the design, construction and commissioning stages. And communities can languish many more years on the waiting list.

If you look at the Walkerton crisis in early 2000, it was within a year that 144 municipalities were actually addressed and mitigated so that they wouldn’t have boil-water advisory issues. There is no question that the Liberal government can do this.

Isadore Day, Ontario Regional Chief

Marten Falls First Nation in Northern Ontario began campaigning for a new plant after its existing system was slapped with a boil-water advisory in 2005. That advisory remains in effect. Marten Falls sits near the top of the department's prioritization list, which means a proposed plant is in the design phase. That's news to Chief Bruce Achneepineskum, who said he has seen no indication the project is moving forward. "There's no funding of any kind this fiscal year," he told The Globe. "It's just an illusion … it's window dressing." (The department says Marten Falls must first complete a funding submission.)

But remediating only the worst systems is likely insufficient to eliminate boil-water advisories. Clayton Leonard, a partner with MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman, represents First Nations clients across Western Canada on water issues. He argues Ottawa must address medium-risk systems, too. "Chronic underfunding, undertraining, lack of maintenance is going to put those systems in the high-risk category on the foreseeable horizon," he said.

Last year, the department said its objective was to increase the proportion of low-risk systems to slightly more than half of the total by 2019. Asked how it plans to achieve the Prime Minister's new target, department spokespersons said the latest federal budget commits "an additional $1.8-billion over five years, starting in 2016-17."

Apart from additional spending, it's difficult to see what's new in the department's approach. Although First Nations have long complained of insufficient infrastructure funding, the department's own data suggest more spending alone won't suffice. One might expect recently constructed plants to have lower risk scores than ones built during the 1970s and 80s. In fact, systems built in the past 15 years actually have higher average risk scores than ones built in the 1970s that are still in service. The average risk score for the 14 systems constructed on reserves in 2014 was nearly 4.8 – significantly above the national average.

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A water treatment plant is seen in Saddle Lake, Alta., in July. Saddle Lake’s public water system was overhauled in 2011 to incorporate a new treatment process called Integrated Biological Reverse Osmosis Membrane.

A water treatment plant is seen in Saddle Lake, Alta., in July. Saddle Lake’s public water system was overhauled in 2011 to incorporate a new treatment process called Integrated Biological Reverse Osmosis Membrane.

JASON FRANSON/For the Globe and Mail

Sometimes those outcomes stem from human factors, which figure prominently in the department's scoring system. Indeed, 60 per cent of overall risk scores derive from things under operators' control, such as record keeping and operational practices. Many First Nations plant operators lack the required education and training to meet provincial standards, resulting in higher scores.

Yet the department's data also raise questions about newly built plants. Of the 14 constructed in 2014, half were slapped with alarmingly high design-risk scores by the department's own inspectors. The reasons are unclear. Two are on the Cowichan No. 1 reserve on Vancouver Island: Alec Johnnie, operations and maintenance manager for the Cowichan Tribes, said both perform well. The engineer who performed the inspections declined to comment. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada did not respond to requests for comment on the situation.

Mr. Trudeau's five-year commitment emerged from his conversations last year with Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day. Mr. Day acknowledged the problem's complexity, but said it's up to First Nations to keep the government focused. "If you look at the Walkerton crisis in early 2000, it was within a year that 144 municipalities were actually addressed and mitigated so that they wouldn't have boil-water advisory issues," he said. "There is no question that the Liberal government can do this."

Walter's convenience store in Saddle Lake Alberta, July 21, 2016. Saddle Lake reserve gets its water from the lake, which is classified as surface water and INAC considers this a risky water source.

Walter’s convenience store in Saddle Lake Alberta, July 21, 2016. Saddle Lake reserve gets its water from the lake, which is classified as surface water and INAC considers this a risky water source.

JASON FRANSON/For The Globe and Mail.


A look into some on-reserve water systems

One-third of First Nations people living on reserves use drinking water systems that threaten their health. Matthew McClearn examines nine of these communities.

British Columbia

Chuchuwayha 2

Effective System Risk: 8.6 (High)

Primary challenges

  • Operator
  • Operations
  • Record keeping
  • Plant design
  • Small population

Chuchuwayha 2, a reserve of the Upper Similkameen First Nation located in Hedley, B.C., is one of many in that province with a small, high-risk water system. It serves just 15 houses and an estimated 30 people. At its last inspection in August, 2014, the inspector determined that the system's operators, design, record keeping and the manner in which it was operated all posed high risks. Although the rationale behind those opinions is not recorded in the data obtained by The Globe, a detailed inspection conducted several years earlier note that the system had no operator whatsoever, and no target date to find one. This was hardly surprising, given that the community had no treatment system, either – it used raw water directly from its well. There was little or no record keeping, substandard maintenance effort, and very little water quality monitoring. Attempts to reach community leaders were unsuccessful.

Alberta

Beaver Lake 131

Effective System Risk: 4.4 (Medium)

Primary challenges

  • Quality of source water

According to the most recent inspection, in 2014, the operators of Beaver Lake Cree Nation's water system seem to be doing a fine job. Their reporting, operational practices and level of training and experience all scored well – which resulted in a medium-risk rating for the system as a whole. The problem is Beaver Lake itself. It's one of just five water sources across the country with a water-source risk score of 10, the worst possible. According to Health Canada data, the community suffered through boil-water advisories in 2006, 2007 and 2011, the longest of which lasted nearly 200 days.

The First Nation has complained of increasing levels of selenium, organics and iron in its raw water. A 2010 inspection report noted trihalomethanes, haloacetic acids and aluminum had been observed at levels above federal guidelines. "The existing system will probably not be effective in producing safe drinking water in the future." Community leaders didn't respond to interview requests.

Alberta

Ermineskin Cree Nation

Effective System Risk: 4.0 (Low)

Primary challenges

  • Availability of source water

Ermineskin, located an hour's drive south of Edmonton, has a central system delivering water to roughly 130 homes. It's rated a low-risk system, but this masks serious problems: Most of the reserve's homes rely on wells and cisterns, and it lies smack in the middle of one of Canada's driest regions. "If we don't have enough rain or snow, we're not going to have enough water," says Carol Wildcat, the community's consultation co-ordinator. "And historically, over the last 10 years, we haven't had a lot."

In 2011, a government-funded report recommended Ermineskin be connected to a regional water line, and its water plant be converted into a pumping station and storage facility. The estimated cost: $14.6-million. Ms. Wildcat worries if it ever came to that, her community would end up paying through the nose; other indigenous communities in Alberta that signed on to such arrangements had to back out in the face of steeply rising water costs, she says. But she also worries about the area's dwindling groundwater. "I think it's going to continue to be dry," she says.

Alberta

Saddle Lake Cree Nation

Effective System Risk: 8.0 (High)

Primary challenges

  • Operations
  • Legacy of shoddy construction

Saddle Lake's public water system, which serves 5,000 people, was overhauled in 2011 to incorporate a new treatment process called Integrated Biological Reverse Osmosis Membrane (IBROM), a technology developed in Saskatchewan. But a new plant alone wasn't sufficient to end a long-standing boil-water advisory.

Carl Shirt, hired three years ago to operate the water system, says much of the community's distribution system was poorly constructed. Pipes were laid in uneven trenches that were backfilled improperly, resulting in punctures. "When the band buys something like a pipeline they have to make sure it's done correctly" to avoid unnecessary repairs, he says.

Saddle Lake's advisory was lifted in 2014. Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) still rates the community's water system in the high risk category – a recent inspection raised concerns about operations and water source quality, though specific concerns are not revealed in the data. Mr. Shirt, though, says the plant is performing well: The new IBROM is easier to operate than conventional plants, affording him more time to address problems in the distribution system.

Ontario

Marten Falls First Nation

Effective System Risk: 8.0 (High)

Primary challenges

  • Plant design

INAC lists this remote reserve as "Priority 1" for getting a new water plant. But Chief Bruce Achneepineskum accuses the department of demonstrating little urgency. Marten Falls has been on a boil-water advisory since 2005. Its water source, the Albany River, contains high levels of coliforms, dissolved organic carbon and other contaminants. Its water treatment plant, constructed in 1997, is incapable of processing it into safe drinking water, according to an inspection report.

Although the previous chief received a letter from INAC two years ago promising to fund a new plant's design phase beginning in 2014, Mr. Achneepineskum says Marten Falls hasn't received a cent to date. INAC responded that it requires "a completed funding submission from the First Nation," and that it "remains committed" to working with the community. "Typically, the timeframe associated with a project from design to construction and commissioning is three years," the department wrote in a statement.

In the meantime, band manager Linda Moonias estimates the government has spent nearly $4-million flying bottled water into the community since 2005. "That's probably half what it would have cost if they'd started building our water treatment plant," she says.

Ontario

Walpole Island

Effective System Risk: 1.8 (Low)

Primary challenges

  • Source water quality
  • Operating costs

Walpole Island's road to safe water is chronicled by its three water plants, sited close together on the banks of the St. Clair River. One, long defunct, is little more than a run-down boarded-up shed on the riverbank. Another, set back on the opposing side of the road, is now used for storage. The newest, a modern facility paid for entirely by INAC, has consistently been deemed low risk since its commissioning in 2007. "It's 100 per cent better" than its predecessor, says Stacey Kicknosway, its primary operator.

Mr. Kicknosway is also a crucial element: He's one of only a handful of Ontario First Nations operators with a Class 4 water treatment licence, a senior and coveted designation. It also helps that Sarnia's chemical industry, located upstream, has spilled less into the river in recent years. But the new plant is more expensive to operate than its predecessor, and federal funding for that has not increased. "We don't have enough," says Mr. Kicknosway. "We're in the red every year."

Ontario

Wawakapewin

Effective System Risk: 8.0 (High)

Primary challenges

  • Small population

When an INAC-hired inspector arrived to inspect Wawakapewin's water system in July, 2010, he found the remote reserve almost uninhabited. Though his report listed an official population of 23, only six were present. The absent included the chief, council and water-treatment plant operator. Most residents lived there during the winter only.

As for the water system, it was shambolic. Wawakapewin's well appeared to be downgrade from a septic field. There was no backup power, no autodialer to warn of alarms, one component had been unplugged, and there was little evidence of water-quality monitoring or record keeping. A drinking-water advisory had been in place for more than six years.

The report recommended the treatment plant be upgraded and expanded, at an estimated cost of $2.7-million. (INAC didn't respond to questions about what remedial steps, if any, have been taken since then, but said it's "working with the Wawapakewin First Nation on solutions.") The cost of delivering safe water in such communities, on a per-household basis, could be astronomical.

Ontario

North Spirit Lake

Effective System Risk: 6.0 (Medium)

Primary challenges

  • Uncertainty in government funding

Some First Nations don't want the federal government to end boil-water advisories on their behalf. "We have the solutions," says Barry Strachan, public works manager at Keewaytinook Okimakanak, a tribal council of six First Nations in northern Ontario. "And they lie within the communities themselves. Help us to implement them."

Two years ago, the council's chiefs learned the federal government would discontinue the First Nations Water and Wastewater Action Plan (FNWWAP). "We were in the same situation when the program ended as when it began," says Mr. Strachan. "There was no action to ever remove a boil-water advisory in the KO communities, to my knowledge, throughout this whole period." Keewaytinook Okimakanak therefore regarded FNWWAP's termination as an opportunity. It created the Safe Water Project, a federally funded pilot project run primarily out of Dryden, Ont.

This project includes a new training centre, remote monitoring of water quality, and trained water operators on call to help local operators solve problems. So far Keewaytinook Okimakanak says it's ended three boil-water advisories. Its next target: North Spirit Lake, subject to a boil-water advisory since 2001. But Mr. Strachan says he spends a quarter of his time maintaining the project's funding, which officially ended on March 31. At publication time, the tribal council said it's hopeful the funding will be renewed soon.

Labrador

Natuashish

Effective System Risk: 6.3 (Medium)

Primary challenges

  • Operators
  • Operations
  • Record keeping

The Mushuau Innu First Nation relocated from the troubled island community of Davis Inlet to the new mainland settlement of Natuashish in late 2002, at a reported cost of nearly $200-million. Their new home included brand new houses, streets, a school, firehall and water system. INAC's data indicate it is well-designed to cope with the low-quality water it must process. It's still a medium-risk system, however, owing largely to human factors.

During its latest inspection in September of 2014, the inspector assigned the maximum operator risk score of 10, for reasons not revealed in the data obtained by The Globe. The inspector was evidently also concerned with the quality of record keeping and the manner in which the system was being operated. Natuashish's system serves an estimated 930 people. Attempts to reach Natuashish's leadership were unsuccessful.



About the data

The Globe and Mail's coverage of First Nations water systems is informed by data acquired from the federal government. We studied data from the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs (INAC), from something called the Integrated Capital Management System (ICMS). In 2006 INAC began conducting annual inspections of water and wastewater systems on First Nations reserves. These are conducted on most centralized drinking water systems by professional engineers or certified water treatment plant operators. The department regards them as a planning tool for decisions about how these systems are operated and maintained, and how the risks they present can be reduced.

We also analyzed data produced by Health Canada covering drinking-water advisories issued for First Nations reserves.

What's the significance of this data?

The ICMS data shows the department's own assessment of First Nations water systems. It's the most detailed data on these systems we're aware of. These risk scores do seem to have consequences: According to one 2013 INAC document, higher-risk systems receive "greater attention and investment."

How did The Globe obtain it?

With considerable effort.

We learned about the ICMS's existence last November. INAC's media relations department acknowledged the data existed and provided general information about it, but indicated the data were not publicly available because they belonged to First Nations.

The Globe applied to receive the data under the federal Access to Information Act. The act provides for release of government records, typically within 30 days, subject to certain restrictions. We asked to receive it as an Excel spreadsheet, since that would facilitate our analysis of it. The department confirmed it possessed the data in that format. However, in December, 2015, it sent a CD containing low-quality images of that spreadsheet, which had previously been printed out and scanned. Many columns were too narrow, rendering their contents illegible.

We deemed this unacceptable.

The Globe asked the department why it sent the data in this cumbersome format. INAC responded that it was obliged to release information in a format that could not be modified by recipients. We scoured the Access to Information Act for such a requirement but couldn't find one; indeed, we even found passages in the government's Access to Information Manual allowing departments "to convert the information into a format other than the one requested if the converted format of the record would be useful to the requester." INAC, however, contested the manual's validity.

The department did concede that the records released in December, 2015, were illegible, and promised on several occasions to send a legible version. It never did.

In a letter to Carolyn Bennett, Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, dated Dec. 29, 2015, The Globe appealed to the government to meet its obligations under its own "Open Data" principles. Among other things, those principles commit the government to release datasets to the public in formats that lend themselves to machine processing. INAC officials acknowledged they were aware of the letter, but The Globe never received a response.

The Globe appealed to the Office of the Information Commissioner, which was established in 1983 to help individuals who believe federal institutions have not respected their rights under the Access to Information Act. That office concluded INAC "had no justification for refusing to provide you the requested documents in Excel format." After a mediation session in April, INAC finally agreed to provide the data in Excel format, provided The Globe renounce its right for judicial review before the Federal Court. We agreed. We received the data in May, approximately six months after we'd requested it.

It should be noted that both INAC and Health Canada promptly released other datasets to The Globe. The delays in obtaining the ICMS data, however, impeded progress for months.

What do INAC's risk scores mean?

They're an indication of the risk that a particular water system may provide unsafe drinking water under adverse conditions.

During annual visits, INAC's inspectors review a variety of factors including a water plant's design, the source water it is processing, the manner in which it's being operated, the level of training and experience possessed by the people charged with running it, and the quality of the records they keep. Based on these factors, inspectors calculate risk scores between 1 and 10.

Any system scoring higher than 7 is classified as high risk. According to a 2011 report by Neegan Burnside, an engineering firm retained by the federal government to conduct a national assessment, such systems feature "major deficiencies in most of the components." Such systems may be providing safe drinking water at the moment, but should a problem arise they may produce unsafe water. "Issues should be addressed as soon as possible," the firm recommended.

Medium-risk systems include those scoring between 4 and 7. These feature "major deficiencies" in one or two components and minor deficiencies in others. There's a medium probability that these systems might produce unsafe water in the event of problems. Low-risk systems (those scoring below 4) are considered robust.

Certain issues, such as bacterial levels above regulatory limits, automatically trigger high risk ranks. Moreover, should inspectors believe the risk score they calculate does not adequately reflect their professional opinion, they may "override" and assign the system a higher risk score.

What limitations do INAC's data have?

INAC's risk scores reflect certain judgments and assumptions. For instance, human-influenced factors such as record keeping, operator training and procedures account for 60 per cent of a total risk score, whereas physical factors such as the plant's design and the quality of source water account for just 40 per cent. Some sources interviewed by The Globe disputed the apparent logic behind these assumptions; one argued it was unfair to rely so heavily on operators, who may be dealing with highly contaminated source water and a plant that's incapable of processing it.

The data are not entirely consistent over time. Between 2009 and 2011, for example, the government hired engineering firm Neegan Burnside to conduct a national assessment that was far more thorough and detailed than annual inspections; perhaps not coincidentally, the national assessment produced higher risk scores than had been previously observed. Guidance provided to INAC's inspectors also changed over time.

Neegan Burnside's report noted that some INAC regions applied different criteria during the risk assessment process. This may lead to misleading comparisons between certain provinces in certain years.

INAC says not all of the ICMS data have been subjected to a quality-control process, and has reported concerns about data quality. "Many errors were detected by the Regions when importing inspection results into ICMS, due to issues related to the inspection questions, which resulted in manual corrections," according to an audit conducted in 2013. That same report noted that INAC's regions assign different professionals to conduct these inspections: Some favour INAC's own staff, whereas others use external consultants. INAC believed that its own staff tended to assign higher risk scores than did consultants.

In recent years, INAC began reporting estimates of populations served by individual water systems. The Globe used this data in its analysis. INAC prefers to use on-reserve populations from the Indian Registry System, which it considers to be more reliable.

The ICMS data provides an incomplete perspective on First Nations water systems. One reason is that INAC inspects only centralized water systems; By one estimate, 30 per cent of on-reserve populations are served by individual systems such as private wells. "Households dependent on private wells or wastewater systems on reserves are in an even more precarious situation than those served by public water systems," argued a report published in early June by Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization. "There is no dedicated government funding to upgrade, operate, maintain, or monitor these systems." Furthermore, some reserves have no water systems at all.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the ICMS data is that similar data do not exist for other Canadian communities. The federal government has long stated its objective is to provide services on reserves comparable to those available in non-aboriginal communities of similar size. However, the lack of similar uniform data for Canadian municipalities makes comparisons impossible.

With files from Michael Pereira



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