The sewage lagoon at the North Caribou Lake First Nation has leaked every year since the federal government constructed it in 1997.
But this winter the lagoon burst, sending its contents streaming across the north end of the reserve toward a creek that feeds into the water supply for the Oji-Cree community about 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.
So far, there is minimal bacterial contamination of the water supply from the raw sewage, with levels of E. coli below the level deemed to threaten human health. But the community of just under 700 people is worried about what will happen during the spring thaw, and how its water supply and the lake where people swim and fish could be affected.
Chief Dinah Kanate has declared a state of emergency and hopes to meet with officials from Ottawa this week to ask for immediate help from Indigenous Services Canada (ISC). “I am very worried about this,” Ms. Kanate said. “There’s already E. coli in the water system.”
The poorly constructed lagoon at North Caribou Lake is part of a larger issue of outdated and badly functioning water and waste water infrastructure that exists on reserves across Canada. The federal government has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars over the past three years to address the national problem.
In January, ISC provided $265,000 to the North Caribou Lake First Nation to study the feasibility of eventually replacing both the lagoon and the community’s water treatment plant. But Ms. Kanate says requests to provide emergency repairs to the broken lagoon itself were refused until she spoke to The Globe and Mail and the government offered another meeting.
The Globe sent questions about the sewage breach early last week to the office of Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan, which referred them to the department. On Friday, ISC contacted Windigo, North Caribou Lake’s tribal council, to arrange a meeting at which the department said steps to “mitigate the health and safety” of the First Nation will be discussed. That meeting could take place as soon as this week.
An assessment conducted by ISC’s health branch on March 5 recommended that the First Nation “immediately” work with Windigo and ISC to make all necessary repairs. And the department says its officials met with Windigo and representatives of the First Nation on March 20 to discuss the issue. But Ms. Kanate said no promises resulted from those meetings.
“They said there was no money to deal with this, they couldn’t deal with this situation we have here,” she said in a phone interview on Monday.
As the community waits now for officials to decide whether repairs will be done and who will pay for them, the sewage is continuing to flow. The situation is expected to get worse as the ice melts and pulls the smelly effluent down the creek and into Weagamow Lake.
The leaky lagoon has been a long-standing issue. An engineering report sent in July, 2003, to what was then the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs says the sewage lagoon has always leaked. That report flagged seepage losses that were 20 times higher than expected because the lagoon was built on top of peat moss and has no bottom liner. Subsequent memos in later years point to the same issues.
Over time, the people of North Caribou Lake have grown accustomed to the smell.
This winter, raw sewage began pouring over the top of the lagoon or through cracks in its walls or both – the actual breach has not yet been identified. The sewage flowed across the winter ice road that is the only land route to several First Nations further to the north, creating a dense fecal fog as the warm effluent hit the snowy terrain.
“It was bad,” Ms. Kanate said of the smell and the mess. She closed the ice road early because she didn’t want to be pulling cars out of the sewage-filled hole that was created.
A consultant hired by the First Nation conducted tests that found the amount of E. coli outside the lagoon on its eastern side was so high it could not be measured.
Dogs are running through the flow and “going into the houses and the kids are playing with them, or they are jumping on people and they are carrying E. coli,” Ms. Kanate said.
The E. coli bacteria, which is found in untreated waste water, can lead to a variety of intestinal infections that can cause diarrhea, stomach pain, fever and vomiting and can be life-threatening to infants and people with a weakened immune system.
The First Nation has a water treatment plant on Weagamow Lake that filters contamination. But most municipalities in Canada do not allow sewage to flow near their intakes, said Jamie Saunders, the water project analyst for the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), which represents 49 First Nations communities north of Thunder Bay, including North Caribou Lake.
And, in a couple of weeks, Ms. Kanate said, the ice on Weagamow Lake will melt. People will be fishing in the creek. “And, if anybody knows the children in this community, they know that, once the water breaks, even if there is still ice on the lake, they are out there swimming.”
The community faces a serious health risk, said Mr. Saunders, who worked as a septic-system inspector in Southern Ontario before taking the job with NAN last May.
If a situation such as the one in North Caribou Lake occurred anywhere but on a First Nation, there would be an immediate order to repair the leak, he said. Across Ontario “we are applying the gold standard of water regulation to our municipalities, yet the moment you cross over a certain parallel, you are back to basically no standard at all.”