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A Walkerton waiting to happen?

Contamination of the town of Walkerton's water system by E. coli in May 2000 that resulted in seven deaths and 2,300 ill people, some of whom may experience permanent health effects, raised an outcry nationwide.

When the facts came out that this disaster probably could have been prevented had the provincial government not cut its approvals and inspections programs and if water plant operators had been properly trained, certified and supervised, it brought home to many First Nations what they have worried about for years: water-borne catastrophes could occur on their reserves.

It's not mere idle speculation Parallels to Walkerton may be identified on some reserves: mechanical problems with treatment plants, contaminants leaching into water supplies from outside sources, lack of trained operators or insufficiently trained operators, lack of inspection and testing, lack of legislation to deal with water and wastewater management on reserves and insufficient money for maintenance. What is worse, on some reserves there isn't any functional water treatment plant at all.

After Walkerton, the Ontario government set up a commission headed by Ontario Court of Appeal Judge Dennis R. O'Connor to examine what occurred there and how it can be prevented from happening in other communities. Part 1 of the report, detailing the findings and containing some recommendations, was released last month.

On Jan. 18, the Ontario government made a commitment worth $52,730,000 to Walkerton, to provide compensation for injuries and losses and to repair arid restore the town's water supply system.

Spurred on by the spectre of Walkerton, municipalities are reviewing their water management practices and procedures and initiating remedial action where necessary.

Indian reserves, which come under federal jurisdiction, are getting some help from the federal government to build or modernize their own treatment facilities and to train operators. But many of them have been waiting years for substantial help and some have had to drink bottled water just as long.

A 1995 Health Canada water and wastewater study identified 171 reserves, about 20 per cent, whose water systems had the potential to affect the health and safety of community members. About 10 per cent of the sewage treatment systems posed the same threat.

Indian Affairs spokesman Ian Corbin is the director of housing and infrastructure with the Community Development Branch. He said his latest information, which is now about a year old, shows that "corrective action" was taken with respect to most of the systems "where we had direct influence" on the 171 reserves. In some cases, water is being supplied by an off-reserve municipality, which the department must work with to improve systems.

"Similar to what it is off-reserve," said Corbin, "water is a shared responsibility." He said INAC, Health Canada, First Nations and the private sector (engineering firms that design water systems) all have a role.

He said INAC is flow "looking at the recommendations in the Part 1 (Walkerton) report, in terms of assessing basically the system, the process on reserve ... because it does impact more broadly even in the province than just the Walkerton situation."

The department, however, "is not responsible for ensuring that there's trained operators there," said Corbin. But they do provide funding to train operators. In cooperation with Health Canada and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), he said they have developed a "circuit rider training program" that has been in place since 1995.

A trained operator and trainer visits a reserve and provides hands-on training to the facility operator "on the Proper operation and maintenance of the equipment." The trainer stays about a week, goes out to another community, and returns a month or so later for follow-up.

The program is voluntary and it is up to the First Nation to request it.

Corbin said now they are looking at expanding the program so it is available to all operators and making it mandatory. They're also in the process of identifying the operators who need training. He said it wouldn't necessarily come from the circuit rider program because community colleges often offer comparable operator training. Bands would pay for it out of their general revenues from the department.

Corbin doesn't know how many trainers are available presently or how long a wait there may be to meet the demands of First Nations for operator training. One problem since Walkerton is that a lot of municipalities have also been looking for training for their operators.

Their goal is to get all operators who don't have any training into a program by "sometime next year--as soon as possible, as soon as we can get them scheduled into it." Depending on the skill level of the operator and the complexity of the plant, it can take up to two years to complete the training, because of the intermittent nature of the program.

"We're trying to encourage First Nations to hire operators with Grade 12 education, which would normally be the standard," to train to run a water plant. But because literacy is often a problem, part of the circuit rider program provides some basic math and science.

The circuit rider program provides enough of "the essentials in terms of the basic operation of the facility" to keep the community safe while upgrading is going on, he said. The operator, however, is only one piece of the picture, which is why monitoring programs test the water regularly.

"Those are operated by Health Canada."

Corbin believes testing, while it varies with the type of system, is normally done four times a month "for microbiological." But other types of testing are done, perhaps daily, such as for E. coil, by the community. Examples of other types of testing are for chemical and radiological parameters.

Remote communities may have community monitors take the samples and send them to laboratories for testing.

Support for water and sewer needs by the department is normally $100 to $125 million a year, he said. This year the department is investing another $50 million through funds from Gathering Strength.

Corbin says he anticipates a lot of that money will support the upgrading of water and wastewater facilities. The latter program is proposal driven.

Corbin adds the department, in conjunction with Health Canada, Environment Canada and First Nations, is working on a "First Nation water management strategy." It may take "a while" to complete and implement it.

Part of that involves looking at various components of the "multi-barrier approach" suggested in the Walkerton report. In other words, a system of checks and balances and including protection for the water source.

Currently there are no regulations, only standards, on reserves. But INAC is telling First Nations that if they are designing new water facilities they must meet federal water guidelines or provincial standards, whichever are more stringent.

Bill Marion, a member of the First Nations Water and Wastewater Advisory Committee and manager of public works for James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, says he is aware of the national water and wastewater assessment study that Indian Affairs is doing now. The study in his community was completed last fall.

"But aside from that, Indian Affairs is also doing a study on O and M (operating and maintenance) to determine the adequacy of O and M."

A lot of bands say they're not getting adequate O and M dollars to operate water and wastewater facilities, according to Marion. And he had only just recently become aware of a new clause INAC has inserted in First Nations funding agreements, which isn't so favorable to the First Nations. The clause limits government liability if a problem occurs with a water or wastewater treatment facility on reserve. If the bands want their federal money, they have, no choice but to sign the agreement.

"Definitely, from the First Nations perspective, it gives substance to not only, for example, improve the standards and conditions of these water and wastewater facilities, but more so it opens the door up to training and having qualified personnel." That points to certification, which is what Marion is striving to develop a program for. He is participating in putting a draft certification program together for First Nations water and wastewater facility operators, based on provincial and North American highest standards.

"We want this program to be First Nation-driven. We want it to be administered by the First Nation group, and by doing so, it will create an eleventh certifying authority in Canada (along with the other provinces)."

Lawyer Michael Sherry spoke to Windspeaker on Jan. 30 about the clause INAC has added to recent First Nations funding agreements. He said he believes many bands have signed the agreement without realizing the liability clause was there. If a water plant fails and there is a Walkerton-type problem, bands are legally on the hook.

The language of the clause says bands have to put in place "measures to ensure that satisfactorily trained personnel are available at all times to operate and maintain technical systems according to the design standards of the specific plant or equipment."

Sherry pointed out that many First Nations are in no financial position to accept full responsibility for the safe operation of water and wastewater treatment plants.

"Two-thirds of communities in the extreme North are under co-management agreements because of (insufficient) federal funding," he said.

Legal loopholes and getting certified operators aren't the only concerns, though. Marion added that not only do operators need the support of chief and council to get trained, but they need the support of INAC's O and M dollars afterward to ensure they are paid a comparable wage to off-reserve facility operators. That's the only way to keep them on reserve.

Poplar River First Nation in Manitoba got its new water and sewer system more than a year ago, but the ceremony to celebrate the grand opening was delayed until Jan. 14 this year.

Chief Vera Mitchell said that day the new system "will further strengthen the health and safety of our children, which is of utmost importance to us. I am very proud of my community's achievement."

At the end of the month she said "what I'm not satisfied with is the amount of money they (INAC) give us for O and M. They basically give us enough money to pay the hydro bill and pay the salary for a guy to turn on the switch, because they assume everything is automatic.

"If you're in a town, for example, you'd get enough money to hire an engineer to run a big plant such as that. If you're a person in a reserve, they give you enough money to hire somebody off the street basically with no experience or no training."

She said she knows INAC gives the tribal council money to do the "circuit rider" training program, but "it's not what it should be."

She added, "They use a formula to calculate how much O and M we should receive. But what's not calculated in that formula is the actual cost, say, of that chemical that we need." The chemical they need comes in 45-gallon drums, which costs "probably $400 per drum." But to fly it in may cost $1,000 to ship it to their isolated reserve. They have winter road access and a barge in summer.

"It's nice that we have a new system, but what happens 10 years down the road when everything, starts deteriorating and we have to replace parts?"

The chief said they are fortunate that their water plant operator is "a good ,guy, who trained himself, I guess you could say. We're just lucky enough that he's knowledgeable enough," despite not having a lot of formal education, she said.

Regional chief for Ontario Charles Fox holds the drinking water portfolio with the AFN. He could not be reached for comment.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Aboriginal Multi-Media Society of Alberta (AMMSA)
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Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:providing safe water supplies on First Nations reserves
Author:Taillon, Joan
Publication:Wind Speaker
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Feb 1, 2002
Words:1956
Previous Article:Conference examines why people protest. (News).
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