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Across Canada, Original Peoples suffer a plague of unsafe drinking water in their communities. As of May 11, there were 88 First Nations communities under a drinking water advisory, according to Health Canada. But there is hope that the problem can be solved and, according to one scientist, inexpensively.
The Saddle Lake Cree Nation (SLCN), home to a community of 5,800 people, situated on the upper bank of the North Saskatchewan River northeast of Edmonton, once had what water experts described as “among the worst drinking water in the country.” Up to 40 percent of people at SLCN were said to be suffering gastrointestinal disorders. In May 2004, the Chief and Council called for a boil water advisory because of problems with chlorine disinfection. Health Canada maintained that the water at Saddle Lake was fine to drink. This did not satisfy the residents of SLCN. Health Canada’s solution was to increase chlorination to kill microorganisms. An emergency ultra-filtration system was installed at SLCN to treat the water with a mix of powdered activated carbon, coagulants and coagulant aids, as well as sulfuric acid added in large quantities. This process cost $15,000/month plus $30,000/month for ultra-filtration. The process failed because high chlorine levels at the treatment plant were lost in the distribution system and Health Canada also called for a boil water advisory in September 2004.
In 2005, SLCN’s water keeper Tony Steinhauer brought Dr. Hans Peterson, executive director of the Saskatoon-based Safe Drinking Water Foundation, and Dr. David Schindler, a University of Alberta blue-green algae specialist, to the community.
Among the water culprits at SLCN, Schindler identified classic toxin producing species of blue-green algae, Aphanizomenon and Microcystis. In addition to the noxiousness of the blue-green algae was the assault on the nostrils from the stench of algal decomposition. Peterson described the situation at SCLN as “a story that city people need to hear and see.”
Health Canada contends there are various reasons why many First Nations communities are on long-term drinking water advisories. Among the reasons, are community decisions to decrease or shut off their chlorinator because of community concerns about the taste of chlorine in drinking water after treatment. But chlorination is problematic, as it does not kill all dangerous microorganisms.
The March 22, 2007 progress report of Plan of Action for Drinking Water in First Nations Communities boasts that the federal government has made “significant progress” in providing drinking water to Original Peoples on reserve. Among the achievements cited by INAC are: reducing identified high-risk drinking water systems from 193 to 97 in the past year; appointing an expert panel report on regulatory water schema; training of 875 water and wastewater operators; and putting the Protocol for Safe Drinking Water in First Nations into effect.
The Protocol stems from a three-member expert panel that solicited feedback from First Nations communities on safe drinking water. The report, completed in late 2006, prescribes a new regulatory framework to deal with the problem.
Peterson, however, doesn’t see the problem being solved by bureaucrats, but by people donning rubber boots and trudging into the drinking water reservoirs. In the summer of 2005, an Integrated Biological and RO membrane treatment (IBROMT) pilot project began. Peterson developed the IBROMT process which uses biology instead of chemistry to treat water by removing organics from the water.
In the treatment process, water flows through transparent pipes, mixing with sand-like clay aggregates that provide a substrate required by water-purifying bacteria to live on. The bacteria act as a filter, removing nutrients and energy that inhibits the development of disease-carrying microorganisms. This represents the biological component of the water pre-treatment process at the SLCN project. Afterwards, the water passes through the RO membranes, separating further harmful viruses, protozoa, parasites and organic material from the clean water.
The Saddle Lake pilot project has been operational since August 2005. The distributed water is biologically stable -- i.e., the growth of dangerous microorganisms is thwarted.
Peterson first oversaw the implementation of the IBROMT Process at the Yellow Quill First Nation in northeastern Saskatchewan. Since then, it has been implemented by both the Pasqua and George Gordon First Nations.
The IBROMT system is not only effective and environmentally friendly; its operation is much less expensive. “For the current process [at SLCN] $500 worth of chemicals is required every day,” says Peterson. “For the IBROMT process, that number drops to less than $10 per day.”
“Other costs also need to be considered,” Peterson adds. “Cleaning of reservoirs, pipelines, etc… is either redundant or much reduced [with IBROMT].”
“The process has now improved to such an extent that it is less expensive than conventional treatment. It is even less expensive than no treatment (treating anaerobic groundwater) due to much lower chemical use when operational costs are taking into account over a 20-year time span (the no treatment will have cheaper capital costs to start off with).”
“The Saddle Lake IBROMT is a pilot project right now and the design of the full-scale plant has been started,” says Peterson. “It should be built and up and running within a year providing INAC doesn’t delay funding.”
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.