Unsafe to drink
A Globe review shows water treatment plants are failing on reserves across Canada. For every system the government fixes, plenty remain in a shambolic state
Several days each week last fall, water trucks left Sudbury and drove 130 kilometres west to the Serpent River First Nation, a reserve on Lake Huron's north shore. There, they emptied about 18,000 litres into a reservoir to supplement the community's water treatment plant. John Owl, the plant operator, said it ran 24 hours a day and still could not provide enough water to meet the needs of the reserve's 350 inhabitants. Not that they could drink it – it is subject to a drinking water advisory.
A snowstorm in December shut the Trans-Canada Highway, blocking the water shipments. A pipe ruptured in the crawlspace of an abandoned home, draining about four truckloads of water. And as temperatures dropped, the plant's output fell. "As the water gets colder, it gets denser and it's harder to push through the filters," Mr. Owl explained.
Serpent River's woes resemble those of the 90 other Canadian reserves under drinking-water advisories. But there is a cruel twist: This water treatment plant is barely a year old. It is a small yet impressive modern facility, a bewildering but orderly arrangement of pumps, piping and gauges.
Diagnosing what went wrong is difficult. But this is no anomaly.
Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, a federal government department, pays for virtually all on-reserve infrastructure, and sets most of the rules for the design and construction of these water treatment plants. To understand INAC's role, The Globe and Mail studied federal reports, pored over documents obtained under Access to Information laws and interviewed project managers, engineering consultants and First Nations leaders.
The Globe's research, which began last summer, found that one-third of First Nations had systems that were at medium or high risk of producing unsafe water, according to INAC's assessment criteria. Among Canada's 600-plus reserves are numerous examples of failed water-treatment plants, water towers and other infrastructure. Some were undersized or poorly designed. Others used inappropriate technology. Still others failed prematurely because they were not properly maintained.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed to end boil-water advisories on reserves by 2021, and the federal government is pouring billions into these systems. At a special meeting of chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations in early December, Mr. Trudeau heralded the ending of "14 long-term drinking-water advisories in First Nations communities."
He did not mention that the total number of First Nations water advisories is little changed: As of Nov. 30, Health Canada reported 130 advisories in effect in 85 communities; a year earlier, the tally was 139 in 94 communities. For every system the government fixes, others remain in a shambolic state and at high risk of failing.
'It's your problem'
Russell Anthony spent his career in project management, and retired a vice-president of Stantec, a major design and engineering firm. During that time, he became worried that Ottawa's procedures would allow unscrupulous or incompetent contractors to perform substandard work.
"We used to call the First Nations stuff 'design, build and bugger off,'" Mr. Anthony said. "Because that's what [some of them] did: They designed, built it and buggered off. And they said: 'If the system doesn't work, it's your problem.'"
Bob LeCraw, president of RAL Engineering in Newmarket, Ont., witnessed the fallout. He has inspected many small water treatment plants on reserves. "There was a period of time, back 20, 30 years ago, where the plants they were putting in just weren't right," he said. "They weren't tested properly. They weren't designed properly."
Charlie Angus, the MP for Timmins-James Bay and the NDP's INAC critic, said that, under Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, the department spent $1.9-billion building new plants. "Many of those water plants didn't even meet building codes or failed as soon as they were built," he said. "Others, they didn't put any money in to connect them to homes. So at the end of that $1.9-billion investment, we had virtually the same number of communities that were facing risk. That is a colossal failure, and it has been repeated."
INAC now spends much of its scarce capital budget fixing or replacing poorly constructed infrastructure. Despite apparent improvement in the past decade, The Globe's analysis of federal infrastructure data found that INAC inspectors expressed grave concerns about the design of 13 First Nations water systems built since 2005 – about one-eighth of the 103 constructed during that period.
The 2016 federal budget allocated an additional $1.8-billion for First Nations water infrastructure between now and 2021. But "if they keep doing it the way they're doing it now in terms of project delivery, they are not going to meet their goal," Mr. Anthony warned.
Hopes ran high when construction began on Serpent River's water treatment plant. Bernard Valcourt, then minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development in the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, congratulated the band and pointed to the hundreds of millions of dollars his government set aside to build more like it. Chief Isadore Day believed it would improve his people's lives. Shortly before the official opening in September, 2015, the plant's engineering consultant and project manager presented the project to their peers at a conference. The community held a contest to name the plant.
The reserve clearly needed it. When inspectors from engineering consultancy Neegan Burnside visited in 2009, Serpent River was served by four wells, each with its own pumping station. The system did not meet government drinking-water guidelines and lacked the capacity to serve the growing community or provide adequate fire protection. Neegan Burnside recommended a new treatment plant that would draw water from nearby Aird Bay, at an estimated capital cost of $8.9-million.
But a feasibility study years earlier by First Nations Engineering Services Ltd. of Ohsweken, Ont., pointed out problems. General manager Craig Baker explained that owing largely to nearby rivers, the water of Aird Bay contained significant concentrations of dissolved organics such as decaying leaves and vegetation.
Most treatment plants use chlorine to disinfect water. But chlorine can react with dissolved organics to form a byproduct called trihalomethanes, which are considered carcinogenic. This requires the organics to be removed before chlorination. Health Canada sets a maximum allowable concentration of trihalomethanes of 0.1 milligrams per litre. Concentrations in Canadian drinking water are typically well below those guidelines, but trihalomethanes remain a problem for many small municipalities and reserves.
Serpent River ran pilot tests (small-scale trials) on two treatment technologies in late 2009. RAL Engineering conducted trials using slow-sand filtration, a century-old technology it had installed at six other reserves. The other featured the Fyne process, a technology developed in Scotland that uses advanced membranes. Fyne systems are found across Canada and in Alaska, typically in industrial settings.
Mr. LeCraw of RAL saw the test results and reported that water from both met guidelines. The Fyne system won, and a project management team was assembled to supervise its construction. The team included members from the First Nation, INAC, treatment process supplier Membrane Specialists of Hamilton, Ohio, and Ontario engineering consultancy J.L. Richards & Associates Ltd. The Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA), which reports to the Ministry of the Environment, was project manager. INAC paid $12.36-million toward the total cost; the band contributed more than $700,000 toward new fire hydrants.
Disaster struck immediately after the ribbon-cutting. Newly elected Chief Elaine Johnston said trihalomethane levels in the processed water reached 0.178 mg. per litre during initial testing, almost double the maximum allowable. She contacted Health Canada, which she later accused of playing down the result. "They were basically telling me that we shouldn't be concerned about the THMs," she said. But with a legacy of cancer deaths among members who had worked in nearby Elliot Lake's uranium mines, the band was concerned. It issued a "Do Not Consume" order and began delivering bottled water to households.
The project team determined that the source water was more acidic than anticipated; it damaged the membranes, rendering them incapable of removing organics.
Chief Johnston reported that project team members continue working together toward a solution. Last year, they began testing membranes tolerant of higher acidity. Since June, the plant has produced "excellent quality water," reported David Pearson of Membrane Specialists. In late January, 77 additional membranes were installed, significantly increasing the plant's production capacity and eliminating the need for water to be trucked in. Another 44 membranes are expected to arrive by early March. The drinking water advisory could be lifted within a few months.
The new membranes are tighter than the originals, constraining the plant's capacity. Mr. Owl, the plant operator, said their performance deteriorates further when the temperature falls 15 to 20 degrees. And where the originals were expected to last a decade, the replacements are expected to last half that. The membranes are expensive and are manufactured in Poland; the band waited months for the latest shipment.
Chief Johnston said she now understands the plant will require additional equipment to pre-treat the source water if it is ever to perform as promised. Cost estimates for that have ranged as high as $1-million. "We're going to need INAC to come forward with the money to be able to do that," she said.
How did everyone get blindsided by these problems? The federal government pilot tested the Fyne process in 2012 at Attawapiskat First Nation in Northern Ontario – with mixed results. The final report concluded the Fyne process did "an excellent job of removing the natural organic material," resulting in low trihalomethane concentrations. However, it argued against building a full-scale Fyne plant, partly because the test had operational challenges, including fouled components and breakdowns.
Consulting engineers told The Globe that, ideally, pilot tests should be conducted over a couple of seasons to account for the variability of raw water sources.
Mr. Pearson said Serpent River's pilot lasted two months.
'Built to fail'
Reading federal documents, one might conclude First Nations bring such misfortunes upon themselves. INAC's official position is that bands are responsible for designing, constructing and operating their water infrastructure; the department limits its role to providing funding and advice. The implication is that if bands hire slapdash contractors or select inappropriate technologies, they are responsible for the consequences.
Others familiar with INAC procedures describe a different reality.
INAC typically provides most or all of the funding for a new plant. But it never had enough money to meet the capital requirements of Canada's reserves. For most of the past two decades, Ottawa capped annual budget increases of many INAC programs – including capital facilities and maintenance – at 2 per cent. INAC responded by raiding more than $100-million annually from its infrastructure budget, directing it to other priorities.
"Why the First Nations have suffered from some poor work in the past is probably all related to budget, all related to money," Mr. LeCraw said. "They go in and try to do a cheap-and-dirty job, and it just doesn't work out."
The post-construction picture is not any prettier, because INAC provides most of the funding necessary to operate and maintain water infrastructure. In 2009 and 2010, Neegan Burnside and its subconsultants inspected water systems on 571 First Nations and heard numerous complaints about inadequate maintenance budgets. Neegan Burnside president Cory Jones said First Nations budgets are "very low [compared] to what a municipality would use to run the same type of system."
Inadequate maintenance of water infrastructure leads to a need for premature replacement. An internal INAC document from 2013 acknowledged "some infrastructure on reserve has a reduced life cycle" because maintenance funds were redirected to other priorities. A study published by the David Suzuki Foundation in February studied drinking water challenges in nine Ontario First Nations. Its authors reached the same conclusion. "Without proper operations and management, water treatment plants that could have had lifespans of many decades fall into disrepair long before their expiration date," the report said.
The additional funds allocated for First Nations water systems in the 2016 budget represent less than half the amount Neegan Burnside estimated was necessary in 2011. And INAC's funding pressures will likely worsen as it finances new plants, which tend to be more expensive to operate than their predecessors.
The next problem is engineering expertise.
Mr. Baker says few First Nations have the technical capacity to make informed decisions about water treatment technology. A 2011 report by the Auditor-General noted that most reserves have fewer than 500 residents and "are hampered by the lack of expertise" to deliver key programs. Chiefs and consulting engineers told The Globe that, in practice, engineers at INAC and consulting firms typically determine which technologies serve Canada's reserves.
INAC said it employs 71 engineers across the country to help First Nations on infrastructure projects. But critics allege few have specialized training and experience with water systems. "They do not have the technical capacity to make an informed decision on what they should and shouldn't do," Mr. Baker said. Similarly, Mr. Angus accused INAC of employing "generalists dealing with very specific issues that need capital planning and funding."
Hans Peterson has worked on First Nations water issues for almost two decades as part of the Safe Drinking Water Foundation, a charity aimed at solving rural treatment challenges. He was instrumental in developing the integrated biological and reverse osmosis membrane (IBROM) process, which has been installed at more than a dozen reserves, mostly in Saskatchewan.
Mr. Peterson said INAC dominates the technology-selection process. "In reality, if INAC wants a community to have a specific process, the community has to put up a fight to get a different process, even if capital and operational costs are much lower for the process the band favours," he said. "The reason for this is simple: The one with the gold makes the rules."
The rules are the third problem.
Water infrastructure in municipalities is governed by provincial legislation that clearly defines required levels of service. No such regulations exist for reserves. In a 2011 report, the Auditor-General of Canada said the absence of standards raised "confusion about federal responsibility for funding them adequately."
Consulting engineers told The Globe that municipal systems in Ontario are built to provide 450 litres per resident per day. Many First Nations systems in the province were built to provide just 180 litres per resident, said Mr. Jones of Neegan Burnside. INAC's standard has since increased, but is still below Ontario standards.
Canada's indigenous population is growing far more rapidly than the broader population. "What we find a lot of times is [the] number that it's being designed for gets outstripped far sooner than we expected," Mr. Jones said. "Which leads to water-quality and water-treatment issues, because you're demanding more water from the system than what it was designed for."
The consequences can be seen at Whitefish River First Nation, just north of Manitoulin Island in Ontario. A plant and associated infrastructure were commissioned in 1997. But Chief Shining Turtle said INAC insisted on "inadequate design criteria" that included a 10-year planning horizon. A decade is all the reserve got: The community quickly outgrew the system, which was soon running 18 hours a day to keep up with demand.
In 2008, INAC spent about $1-million to upgrade the plant – only to finance the construction of a new one the next year. Chief Shining Turtle said the new, slow-sand plant works well, is cost-effective and easy to operate. But it is designed to provide just 275 litres per person per day. "So if our plant was tested by [the Environment Ministry], it would fail, even though it's a brand-new plant," he said. "Why? Because it was designed and built to fail."
Chief Shining Turtle said INAC deals harshly with First Nations that agitate for better standards. "It's their process. And if you don't follow their process, it just stops."
Others say INAC's standards may actually be too high. Madjid Mohseni is an engineering professor at the University of British Columbia and scientific director at Res'eau WaterNet, a partnership that works with small communities to provide drinkable water. He says INAC's standards result in plants that are operationally complex and thus better suited for larger municipalities. (B.C. has the most reserves of any province, but many are tiny.)
"If the communities don't have the capacity, then that system fails very soon after it's built," he said. "You can't expect that everything that can be implemented in the city of Vancouver should be implemented in a remote community of five households."
There is broad agreement that the overall quality of INAC-funded projects has improved. Mr. LeCraw said INAC now largely adheres to provincial standards in Ontario. Mr. Baker said projects built in the past five years in Ontario are of much better quality. Prof. Mohseni deems most systems he has seen in B.C. that were built since the late 1990s to be sound.
Even so, the number of plants requiring immediate replacement might surge if INAC fully embraced provincial requirements. Mr. Baker said he has seen plants in Ontario, built in the late 1980s, with pressure filters that do a poor job of removing microscopic parasites such as giardia and cryptosporidium. "If that same type of treatment plant was running in a municipality, there would have been an order from the province to get it fixed within a certain amount of time or there would be fines invoked," he said. And "I've seen plants less than 10 years old in Ontario, on reserves, that are having issues with trihalomethanes on a regular basis."
INAC acknowledges problems with its approach. In 2015, the department commissioned Orbis Risk Consulting to review 19 on-reserve infrastructure projects – six of them water projects. Sixteen had cost overruns. Orbis's report attributed some overruns to poor, inaccurate design. "Project documents submitted for approval do not prove valid in the post-design and/or post-tendering phase," it noted.
Given its budget constraints, INAC's preoccupation with costs is understandable. But there is little evidence it has devoted much attention to understanding why so much of the infrastructure it paid for fails prematurely.
In a statement received on Monday evening, INAC said that according to its data, "77 per cent of First Nations' water and waste-water systems are projected to remain operational for their life-cycles" – that is, a minimum of 30 years. INAC also said "the 2016 Canadian Infrastructure Report Card shows similar results for off-reserve water and wastewater municipal infrastructure."
Mr. Anthony says INAC's main problem is that its methods have evolved little since the 1980s. Back then, it was common to tender each stage of the process separately – design, construction and operation. Now, among municipalities, assigning the design and construction phases to a single bidder – a so-called "design-build" – "is almost standard practice, and it's not being used with First Nations," he said. But he suggests going a step further by requiring the winning bidder to operate the project for several years.
Mr. Baker said INAC's latest design requirements are solid – it just needs to stop meddling and let consulting engineers do their jobs.
Mr. Peterson laments what he regards as hesitance on the part of INAC and consulting engineers to introduce unfamiliar technology. (His IBROM system cleans water using biological processes, not chemical ones, and is unfamiliar to many civil engineers.)
All the conflicting anecdotes and suggestions indicate the deficiencies in INAC's practices defy simple remedies. Mr. Anthony, however, said that of all the daunting issues besetting many reserves – from poverty to youth suicide – providing safe drinking water is relatively straight-forward to address. Succeeding there could lay the foundation for meeting more difficult challenges.
"There's no technical reason why we couldn't solve the drinking water problem," he said.
"And there's no reason we can't solve it within the five-year mandate of this government – if the government is willing to change the way they're doing things."