Potlotek First Nation advised its water unfit for drinking or washing

A year after residents of Potlotek First Nation in Cape Breton rallied to protest the quality of their drinking water, the community has been advised by Health Canada not to drink the water, bathe in it or even wash clothes in it.

On Monday, the band posted an email from Health Canada on its Facebook page saying the latest test results show that concentrations of manganese and iron in the drinking water exceed the “esthetic objectives” set out in Canada’s guidelines for drinking water quality.

Health Canada recommended the band implement a drinking water advisory and said more detailed information would be available soon.

Discoloration, foul odours

In an email to CBC News, Health Canada said residents should not use the water for drinking, cooking, bathing, showering or doing laundry, but did not say there was any health risk involved in exposure to the water.

“High levels of iron and manganese affect the quality of the water and contribute to water discoloration, foul odours and staining of plumbing fixtures,” wrote spokesperson Maryse Durette.

The water tower in Potlotek First Nation. (CBC)

“Increased levels of iron and manganese are related to seasonal factors such as temperature change and shifting lake waters. Levels usually decline when the seasonal factors end.”

Asked what Health Canada was doing to remedy the problem, Durette noted that the federal department’s role is to work with the community to test the water and to “recommend to chiefs and councils, or their delegates, what necessary corrective actions should be taken.”

Health Canada will continue to work with the band and the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs to monitor the water and provide recommendations to the First Nation, Durette said.

Brown and smelly water

Potlotek resident Bernadette Marshall said she saw the warning on Monday.

“I was drinking water from the tap until last night,” she said Tuesday. “I was told it was safe to drink. I personally am very, very angry. I’m angry, like, what are they trying to do to us?”

Bernadette Marshall, Potlotek

Potlotek resident Bernadette Marshall says there have been many days when the water is brown and smelly. (Bernadette Marshall)

Marshall was one of the people who organized last year’s protest. She said during the past year there have been many days when the water was brown and smelly. 

“There are children suffering skin abrasions, like different problems with their skin, stomach problems,” she said. “There is something definitely wrong.”

New water system

In October last year, the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs agreed to install a new water system in Potlotek. 

Alec Paul, the primary operator of the community’s water treatment plant, said the new system is almost ready to launch. Paul said he’s waiting for a delivery of limestone and then the community will be connected to the new plant.

CBC contacted Indigenous and Northern Affairs for further information about the timing of the new plant opening and water testing results but has not yet received a response.

In the meantime, a limited supply of clean drinking water is available at the band office. 

Marshall said people are also welcome to use the showers at the marina in nearby St. Peter’s. 

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