Go to Site Index See "Articles" main page
28th March 2021
BC Tests Found Unsafe Lead Levels in Water of 35 First Nation Schools

Getting help and funds to fix the threat can be frustrating. A special report.

Francesca Fionda 23 Feb 2021 The Tyee / Institute for Investigative Journalism

When Trever Andrew found out there was a small amount of lead leaching into the tap water in the girl’s washroom at T’selcéwtqen Clleq’mel’ten/Chief Atahm School, he knew it was important to act fast. There is no safe level of lead exposure and children are particularly vulnerable. In adults, lead exposure increases the risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage. In children, lead can affect the development of the brain and nervous system, causing learning disabilities and behavioural disorders.

Looking back, Andrew, who is the water operator for the Adams Lake Indian Band on the edge of Little Shuswap Lake, understood the consequences of lead in water can be “quite dramatic.”

But if Andrew had waited for official guidance on what to do next, he might have been frustrated. Sources at First Nations schools in B.C. say dealing with water worries can mean facing a confluence of confusing bureaucracy, secrecy and funding scarcity.

Thirty-five schools in First Nations across the province had unsafe levels of lead in their drinking water, according to a 2018 briefing note prepared for Health Minister Adrian Dix obtained by the Institute for Investigative Journalism. The tests, done in 2017, were conducted by the First Nations Health Authority in 261 different daycares and schools on reserves across the province. The authority is responsible for the delivery of health programs and services to First Nations in B.C.

What the FNHA discovered should not have come as a total surprise, given that water testing in all B.C. schools had revealed nearly a quarter of those tested had lead problems, and public money and effort had been invested in tackling the issue.

But First Nation schools in B.C. face several barriers to taking similar measures to ensure water is lead-free, reveals an investigation that is part of the project “Clean Water, Broken Promises,” led by Concordia University’s Institute for Investigative Journalism with a consortium of universities and media outlets. Reporting for this article was done in collaboration with The Tyee and journalism students at the University of British Columbia.

Once lead is discovered in a First Nation school in B.C., the obstacles can start with getting money to fix the problem. On top of these funding challenges, Indigenous communities described a lack of transparency, support and guidance from government bodies to ensure safe water.

The First Nations Health Authority would not provide the names of the schools where elevated lead levels were measured or say what, if any, specific steps were taken to protect children in those schools. “We are only responsible for the water testing, which is done according to best practices on a regular basis,” said an FNHA spokesperson via email. “The results are shared with community along with any recommendations the officers might have.”

The spokesperson referred reporters to Indigenous Services Canada, stating that First Nations in B.C. work with the federal government on next steps.

Indigenous Services Canada wouldn’t provide specifics, but said if lead is found in drinking water, it provides funding for any remedial measures needed. It pointed back to FNHA, saying that provincial authority “has taken on the responsibility” for sampling water and giving health advice and technical support to First Nations communities in B.C. “For drinking water sampling questions, please contact the FNHA.”

In a February 2020 briefing note, Indigenous Services Canada stated that “no system-wide drinking water advisories regarding lead are in place and we continue to monitor children’s facilities, including schools. If lead exceedances are found in drinking water, we work together with First Nation community leaders to implement remedial actions such as flushing or the replacement of affected taps.”

Adams Lake Indian Band water operator Andrew describes the relationships between water operators for First Nations like himself, FNHA and Indigenous Services Canada as “dysfunctional.”

He says he received no direction from FNHA after it provided the drinking water test results that tipped him off to elevated levels of lead at his community’s school. Andrew said he didn’t go to Indigenous Services Canada because, after 20 years on the job, he felt his funding request would just get denied.

Andrew decided to take action anyway — even though the lead, he says, wasn’t above the maximum acceptable limit at the time. By the time Andrew was done, he had replaced the tap and sink and added new fittings.

“I just stripped it right down and made sure that I had everything covered. But there’s no instructions to say rip it down, right? I just went ahead,” said Andrew. “And there’s no recommendations in how to address it. So I just stripped everything down, I did my research and found out where it was coming from, put in all new parts and then I resampled and it came back negative.”

Whether similarly thorough actions have been taken to safeguard the health of children in 35 First Nations schools and daycares identified to have lead issues is not clear. Such facts appear to be hidden even from public scrutiny.

For First Nations, more obstacles

Testing for lead in water in B.C.’s schools started after a class in Kitimat noticed salmon eggs in their aquarium were dying. In 2012, a school staff member alerted Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which tested the school’s water and found the school had eight times the safe level of copper. Health authorities began testing nearby schools for copper and lead and found elevated levels in the drinking water at several schools in the community.

As more tests came in, multiple health agencies recommended routine testing in schools across the province. By 2017, the B.C. government made regular testing in public and independent schools for lead in drinking water the law. Schools are expected to work with their local health authority to test for lead and have a clear communication plan in place for sharing results. First Nation band-operated schools work with the FNHA.

Unsafe levels of lead were found in 26 per cent of the taps tested in non-First Nation schools between 2016 and 2017. In some cases, schools had levels more than 100 times the safe limit set by Health Canada at the time. Affected schools responded with a range of solutions in consultation with their regional health authority, including plumbing upgrades, installing lead removal filtration systems, deactivating water sources, putting up signs and flushing to remove stagnant water, according to the Ministry of Education.

By 2017, the provincial government made $7.25 million available through grants for schools to fix or replace lead or copper piping. Six schools received “accelerated investment.”

“My goal is to have every student in B.C. attend a healthy and safe school, and this is another step toward achieving that goal. We know we have more work to do, and that is why we are accelerating capital investments throughout B.C.,” stated then-education minister Rob Fleming.

Public schools in B.C. have access to an annual facilities grant to address routine maintenance, including health and safety issues, which is currently $115.5 million.

It was “fairly easy” to get funding to address lead problems in School District 27, said manager of facilities and transportation Alex Telford. The Cariboo-Chilcotin school region has 22 schools, many of them rural, with 13 getting their water from wells.

In 2017, more than a third of the tested fixtures in the district had elevated levels of lead in the drinking water. A few schools in the district received funding to re-pipe and the rest got funding to replace their drinking fountains. Telford says the lead filter fountains were approximately $1,500 each, costing the entire district about $30,000. They’ve also added some funding to their budget to replace the filters about once a year as part of preventative measures.

But First Nation schools on reserves don’t qualify for any of these grants, as their infrastructure funding comes from Indigenous Services Canada.

“I’m lucky it was just one sink,” says Andrew of the Adams Lake Indian Band, who estimates it cost $300 to $500 to replace the plumbing and fixture. He worries that other communities might have far more expensive problems and no guidance or specific budget to address them. The Institute for Investigative Journalism surveyed 122 water operators in First Nations across the country. Many said they feel there isn’t enough funding to address water-related problems in their communities. They face tough choices about how to spend limited money in their operations and maintenance budgets meant to address the needs of the entire community.

“First Nations, for years, have been fighting to get safe drinking water,” said Chief William Seymour of Cowichan Tribes. Cowichan Tribes is the largest First Nation Band in B.C. with over 4,900 members. Their traditional territory covers much of southeastern Vancouver Island extending across the Strait of Georgia. About half their members live on reserve lands, most of which were placed in the floodplain of the Cowichan or Koksilah Rivers by the federal government, which causes damage to homes and contaminates drinking wells.

Parts of the community living on reserve didn’t have access to clean water for almost three decades, until hooking up to the nearby city of Duncan’s water system in 2018. It was a major undertaking.

“I’ve got community members that have never been able to bathe or shower, or cook without boiling water. So it’s a change for them to have something safe.” Today, some parts of the community have arsenic in the water and a new agreement with Duncan hopes to address that, says Seymour.

Told that 35 First Nations schools and daycares in the province tested positive for lead in their water, Seymour responded, “One is too many.”

Cowichan Tribes’ new source of water doesn’t mean it’s immune to the lead problem. While the daycare, elementary school and middle school on reserve are all hooked up to Duncan’s municipal water system, lead and copper can find its way into drinking water through older plumbing, faucets or drinking fountains.

Neither the Cowichan Tribes health director nor the supervisor for the community water testers was able to confirm if FNHA provided the 2017 water testing results for lead and copper in schools to the community.