Attawapiskat First Nation declares state of emergency and closes schools due to fumes

From Timmins Press¬

School closes

March 26, 2009 - Posted By CHELSEY ROMAIN AND CHRISTINA SPENCER, THE DAILY PRESS¬†¬

Residents of the remote First Nation community of Attawapiskat has said enough is enough and has declared a state of emergency.

Community officials, along with the local education authority issued a release late Tuesday night stating both the elementary and high school have been closed until further notice.

In recent weeks, the building that used to house the J. R. Nakogee Elementary School was torn down. It was during the demolition that members of the community allegedly began smelling a strong odor of fuel.

"They are in the final stages of the demolition and are taking the debris out of the community," said Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Hall. "But some of it is being disposed of at the local dump site."

Hall said that once the building was torn down, the basement was exposed and that's when nearby residents began smelling the gas fumes.

The old school became contaminated following a diesel spill in 1979. Later portables were erected to act as a school for the elementary grades.

According to the release, the dumping site is located just four kilometres west of the city, five kilometres south of the community's water intake site. Both the high school and the portables are a mere five to 10 feet away.

"There are people living in that area and the smell of fumes are giving them headaches," Hall said. "The community decided on Monday that they would prefer to just close the schools until further notice."

The community is also requesting an environmental assessment be done by an independent company, along with a health risk assessment as soon as possible. Hall said a past air quality test showed results below recommended guidelines, but with people now experiencing headaches, another needs to be done.

"They feel it's the only way to ease the minds of people living in that area," she said. "They don't want to live in that kind of environment."

According to Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada Chuck Strahl, Health Canada is currently on the Coast testing air quality, as they have during the entire process. He said they have found nothing wrong.

"This is a bit of surprise to everyone, given that it all seemed to be going according to plan," Strahl said.

"And right now, they've issued this (state of emergency) and I'm not sure what it means or why it has been done."

The release says the community is tired of the ignorance by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada as they continue to struggle through years of fighting to get a new school, new water intake, a new dump site, on-going water plant and sewage problems.

It also stated that all plans have been Band-Aid solutions.

As for the several hundred students being taken out of school due to the situation, Strahl said he's not sure what can be done, only that it's important it be done safely.

"People can debate whether they should have demolished it now or waited until summer holidays, but that's been done, there's no sense debating that part," he said. "All we've been able to do, working with the First Nation is to make sure that the air quality is good, that we have constant monitoring and they have an independent engineering firm that does the same thing on their behalf.

"They have everyone doing their best to make sure everything's done properly and they can't find anything wrong to date, so why they are pulling their kids out of school at this moment is unclear, given that there's no indication that there's a health problem."

Strahl said they were checking in to see what the problem might be, but he is urging the community to listen to its engineering firm, talk to them about safety of the issue.

"I'm not sure what's going on there, but we'll work with them to make sure it's all fine," said Strahl. "Every indication is it's all good."

With a State of Emergency in place, Hall said they are requesting that the people living in the vicinity of the contaminated ground be removed from the community, since there is little else that can be done.

"We need to take them out of the community," said Hall. "We have no where else to put them here."