New water treatment plant 'definitely coming' for Potlotek First Nation after years of brown water

The Mi'kmaq community of Potlotek in Nova Scotia has signed documents to begin construction on a new water treatment facility after 40 years of dealing with brown, smelly water unfit for drinking.

'We've been waiting 40 years for this,' says Chief Wilbert Marshall

Tub water in Patricia Paul's house in Potlotek First Nation, N.S. (CBC)

The Mi'kmaq community of Potlotek in Nova Scotia has signed documents to begin construction on a new water treatment facility after decades of dealing with brown, smelly water, unfit for drinking. 

Since December 2013, Health Canada issued boil water advisories for Potlotek for a total of 539 days, and do-not-consume orders for 79 days, a spokesperson for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada told CBC News.

INAC added that the boil water notices were "precautionary and not as a result of unsafe drinking water." 

But most in the community rarely use the water anyway, says Potlotek member Bernadette Marshall, and it's been like that for a long time. 

Potlotek resident Bernadette Marshall said her family never drinks the tap water. (Bernadette Marshall)

"We're so used to it now," she said. 

"When they say 'boil order,' we stop using it, but my family never drinks it anyway. We purchase our own water. The hardest thing is washing the clothes, bathing in it. It's very frustrating for us." 

Water discoloration and staining has been such a common issue that some community members say they only buy dark-coloured clothing — light items tend to stain brown in the washing machine. 

Like so many other First Nation communities in Canada, some Mi'kmaq in Potlotek see their lack of access to fresh water as normal.

"It's something that we hate to live with, but we live with it," said Marshall.

New plant being designed

The new water treatment plant, which is slated to be built next to the current one, is based around technology and a filtering method that is new to the community. 

Potlotek's director of public works, Quentin Doucette, says it's now in the design stage and after consultation meetings with the community and its Elders, it's basically a done deal.

"It means we're going to have a nice source of water," said Doucette.

"It's taken us a long time to get to a point where everyone will be happy." 

Figures from INAC put the facility's estimated cost at $6 million. 

Patricia Paul shows the effects of Potlotek water on laundry. (CBC)

Doucette said he and engineers plan to find a contractor to build the new plant by June or July of this year. If all goes according to plan, he said it will be finished in the summer of 2019. 

For at least the first year of operation of the new system, Doucette said the band's engineering firm, CBCL Ltd., will be training Potlotek staff and working with them to ensure the system lasts. 

Doucette said measures are being put in place to ensure limited disruption of water services throughout the construction process.

As the community will use the existing facilities during that time, he said the band will continue to provide enough bottled water for every individual in the community if more boil water orders should come about.

A fix coming

The announcement is not the first time there's been hopeful developments on the water system.

Since the community rallied to protest the conditions in 2016, Potlotek council sought consultation from a European water filtration company, and INAC has poured more than $840,000 into the existing facilities for repair — ultimately promising a new system.

Some community members say they've been left in the dark, and are frustrated with the lack of progress. 

Wilbert Marshall, Chief of Potlotek First Nation, says a new water treatment plant is 'definitely coming.' (CBC)

"The paperwork has been signed," said Potlotek Chief Wilbert Marshall, adding that his community members can be assured the work is finally going ahead.

"We've been waiting for this for 40 years. The new plant is definitely coming."

Marshall said he had "lost all faith" that the federal government was going to help them decades ago. Environmental factors have caused elevated levels of iron and manganese for "as long as he can remember."

He said a new water system was installed when he was a councillor in 1999, but it wasn't long before band management realized it was faulty. He said his community was given only "band-aid fixes" from politicians when they asked for assistance.

The current Potlotek water treatment plant. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

That is, until he had a colourful phone conversation with Minister of Indigenous Services and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last year.

"I told them we were f--king tired of this shit," Marshall said with a laugh.

He said he explained the lengthy history of the community's water woes and that they were "respectful" of his frustration. 

"A few weeks later, the money came in to fix it," he said.

"And now, we've got a whole new system coming. It's exciting." 

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About the Author

Nic Meloney

Videojournalist

Nic Meloney is a Wolastoqew video journalist raised on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia/Mi'kma'ki. Email him at nic.meloney@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter @nicmeloney.

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