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Band manager Hugh King looks over the piping for the Gull Bay First Nation fire fighting system at the water filtration plant on the reserve near Gull Bay, Ont., in 2005.

ADRIAN WYLD/The Canadian Press

Behind every failed First Nations water plant is an unfortunate story. Assigning blame can be challenging: Although Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) pays for most on-reserve infrastructure and sets most of the rules governing design and construction, many other parties are involved, including project managers, engineering and construction firms and First Nations chiefs and councillors.

The Globe and Mail's ongoing research into First Nations water systems has revealed a significant number of INAC-funded projects did not last as long as expected. Some were undersized or poorly designed. Others used inappropriate technology. Still others failed because they were improperly maintained. If repeated in future plants, such missteps could thwart the federal government's drive to end boil-water advisories on reserves.

To understand why some plants fail, The Globe studied federal reports and data, examined documents obtained under Access to Information laws and interviewed project managers, engineering consultants and First Nations leaders. These are the stories behind three of Canada's most troubled on-reserve water treatment plants.

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Unsafe to drink: Water treatments fail on Canadian reserves, Globe review finds

Read more: Indigenous Affairs Minister confident about improving water quality on reserves

Gull Bay First Nation (Ontario)

Gull Bay, home to about 300 people, sits on the shore of Lake Nipigon. Two deaths there in the late 1990s that some band members attributed to contaminated water attracted national media attention. This led to a new water treatment plant that drew from the nearby Gull River. It was completed in 2002, around the time Wilfred King was elected chief. Chief King estimated INAC spent at least $10-million on the plant. "And it's never been in service," he told The Globe.

According to Chief King, the plant could not meet provincial drinking-water standards. "And I said: How the hell was this thing built? … There's no way we're going to turn this plant on." Moreover, he said significant technical skills were required to operate the plant, spent chemicals had to be shipped hundreds of kilometres for disposal, and the engineering firm behind the project had no experience with water-treatment plants. "There were officials within Indian Affairs who were basically incompetent and allowed this thing to happen," Chief King said, referring to an earlier name for INAC.

A 2011 report by Neegan Burnside, an engineering consulting firm retained by the federal department, said studies of the source water and forensic audits demonstrated the plant could produce safe drinking water. Its inspectors recommended the new plant be brought online with upgrades. Chief King says that will likely never happen: Freeze-thaw conditions caused extensive damage over the years to its piping. For years, the community has been drinking bottled water, costing INAC hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. The reserve is using a water system from the 1970s for laundry and bathing.

Marten Falls First Nation (Ontario)

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A water treatment plant's failure can reverberate for a generation. The facility, constructed in 1997 at Marten Falls First Nation in Northern Ontario, proved incapable of producing safe water. It has been subject to a boil-water advisory since 2005; a 2010 inspection report by Neegan Burnside found the plant could not meet provincial and federal standards when operated correctly.

Water quality was not its only shortcoming. Chief Bruce Achneepineskum said his community outgrew the plant's capacity within a decade. It cannot provide sufficient flows for the fire hydrants, for example. "It was comparable to a small car that wouldn't be able to fit a growing family," he said. An engineer visits the reserve about every two months to keep the system going. "He does what he can."

Chief Achneepineskum attributes the plant's shortcomings primarily to the absence of regulations governing First Nations water systems. Ontario's municipalities must abide by "legislation that came about because of Walkteron," he said, referring to an Ontario community struck by a fatal E.coli outbreak in 2000. "We don't have anything like that at the moment."

The band campaigned for a new plant for more than a decade. In 2010, Neegan Burnside recommended one, at an estimated cost of $6.6-million. Following "delay after delay," Chief Achneepineskum says INAC agreed to fund the design of a new plant, which is now in progress. He anticipates construction will begin during the summer of 2018.

INAC reimbursed the First Nation for bottled water throughout this period. "The cost of delivering the bottled water here, all those years, is equivalent to almost half the cost of building a water-treatment plant today," Chief Achneepineskum said.

Kahkewistahaw First Nation (Saskatchewan)

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Kahkewistahaw First Nation is 150 kilometres east of Regina. Its water-treatment plant, which draws from the Hatfield Valley Aquifer to serve an estimated 1,500 people, underwent a major upgrade in 2010. This introduced a biological pretreatment process to remove iron and manganese, and nanofiltration systems to address arsenic, sodium and dissolved solids. The system has been subject to repeated drinking-water advisories since. The nanofiltration system could not meet the reserve's demand for water and was eventually decommissioned.

The upgrades had just been completed when Neegan Burnside inspected the plant in 2010. The capacity problem was already evident: Inspectors recommended an expansion, at an estimated cost of almost $1.5-million. INAC records show the federal government contributed $3.8-million in 2011-2012 toward upgrades for the plant and sewer system. It did not help much. "The operators are limping the WTP along," noted an inspection report dated January, 2016. The same report noted arsenic concentrations above federal guidelines in the treated water, and said the plant had inappropriate treatment processes and "significant" reliability concerns.

Yet other INAC inspectors consistently expressed confidence in the plant's design and said it was capable of meeting all applicable provincial and federal standards. They blamed the band's operators for the problems, complaining of inadequate record-keeping, substandard operations and maintenance efforts, and fluctuations in the quality of produced water. A letter INAC sent to the band in November, 2013, noted the system was "new and advanced," and suggested "more attention in the system operation and maintenance should be paid."

Ira Aisaican, the plant's supervisor for the past 15 months, said the band council of the day did not do enough due diligence – such as inspecting plants in similar communities and talking with operators – before approving the earlier upgrades.

"Engineers will come in and put what they want in there, not what the community needs," Mr. Aisaican said. "Leadership … doesn't take it as a priority as much as they should. They're under the impression that if it doesn't work, INAC will just build them another one. I think they should get it right the first time."

The chief and council of the First Nation did not respond to requests for comment.

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Hans Peterson, a Saskatchewan water systems expert familiar with Kahkewistahaw's situation, said a "poor water treatment process" was to blame, not the operators or the band. "Across our country, communities are given tea strainers by INAC, but they are then asking operators to take out espresso coffee grounds," he said. "It cannot be done."

INAC did not respond to inquiries, nor did the company that upgraded Kahkewistahaw's plant.

Kahkewistahaw's plant is again being upgraded, at a cost of $1.2-million. The troublesome nanofilters have been replaced with reverse osmosis units, which Mr. Aisaican hopes will end the boil-water advisory within months. "It should have been a reverse osmosis system from the start," he said.

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