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Frustrations boil as water issues continue in Neskantaga

Oily film observed on surface of water shuts down treatment plant, latest hiccup in decades of challenges with drinking water for First Nation.

NESKANTAGA FIRST NATION – There’s no hiding the frustration of Chief Chris Moonias as he describes the newest problem with Neskantaga First Nation’s water supply: an oily sheen observed on the surface of the community's water treatment plant that prompted a total shutdown earlier this week.

“It’s very dehumanizing to us, what we’re going through,” he told TBT News on Monday. “Water is a basic human right. How come we can’t have it? Are we expected to live like this for another 25 years?”

It’s the latest challenge for a community that has endured the longest-running boil water advisory in Canada. The advisory in Neskantaga, more than 400 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, has been in place since 1995, now spanning nearly 9,400 days.

For Moonias, the refusal of the federal government to support a permanent fix is the major culprit. The government committed $8.8 million for upgrades in 2017, with completion expected the next year. The work is still ongoing.

“Always something else is happening with this water,” Moonias said. “Why can’t it be fixed? We asked for a whole new system, rather than just an upgrade. Bandaid solutions, that’s what we’ve been getting. Where’s the real fix?”

Technicians from the Matawa tribal council were on hand Monday to take samples of the water. Moonias didn’t expect results for about 10 days, since samples had to be sent away for analysis.

Mike Bazdarick, who oversees water and wastewater plant operations for the First Nation, said the cause of the oily sheen remained unknown.

“It could be from anywhere right now, we don’t really want to speculate,” he said.

Moonias worried it could prove to be something like fuel oil with negative health implications.

In the meantime, water has been shut down for the community’s approximately 300 on-reserve residents, who will rely on bottled water shipped in by air.

The community would require portable showers, water heaters, wet wipes and other hygienic and sanitary supplies to get through the crisis, Moonias stated on social media Tuesday.

An evacuation for vulnerable residents might have to be considered, he said. Hundreds of residents previously evacuated to Thunder Bay in 2019 when the plant’s water pumps broke down.

Even with improvements to the plant, residents face continual challenges, the chief added.

The pumps have to be shut down at night to prevent burning out, and they continue to have difficulty building enough water pressure to keep the system running.

The Trudeau Liberals had committed to end all boil water advisories on reserve by March 2021 ahead of their election in 2015. The government recently acknowledged it may not reach that target, citing COVID-19 delays.