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'Where’s the consequences, the fines, the penalties?'

Health and property management officials were a no-show Tuesday night as two dozen Charlie Lake residents met to discuss a drinking water crisis in their mobile home park.
Residents of Shady Acres in Charlie Lake met Tuesday, March 7, to discuss ongoing issues with their drinking water.

Health and property management officials were a no-show Tuesday night as two dozen Charlie Lake residents met to discuss a drinking water crisis in their mobile home park.

Residents of Shady Acres say for three years they’ve been dealing with dangerous levels of manganese minerals in their water.

Updated federal guidelines set maximum acceptable concentrations to 0.12 milligrams per litre in 2019 “to protect the health of Canadians,” and residents say local operators were told levels were too high and to fix the park's water system in February 2020.

But samples have consistently tested above allowable limits, even after a new treatment system was finally installed last year. Samples taken between May and October 2022 ranged from 1.2 and 2.0 mg/L, according to residents. In January of this year, samples tested at 1.8 mg/L — still more than 1,000 times above the limit.

“How is it possible that three years later, literally almost to the day, we’re still in the same boat? Nothing’s been changed and nobody’s doing anything other than [saying] ‘we’re working on it’,” said Cassandra Ross, who organized the public meeting for concerned residents at the community hall.

“Where’s the fire that needs to be lit?” she said. “Where’s the consequences, the fines, the penalties?”

Though manganese is found naturally in the environment, too much can have a serious effect on a person’s health. Chronic overexposure in contaminated water is a particular risk to infants, according to Health Canada, causing neurological and behavioural effects as well as deficits in memory, attention, and motor skills.

Other research has found manganese toxicity affects the central nervous system, causing disorders similar to Parkinson's disease, among other conditions. Residents at the meeting reported a foul sulphur smell in their water, and say it has been thinning out their hair and causing bald spots.

Northern Health and Sterling Management Services, which runs the park, were invited to the meeting but weren't in attendance. Residents were disappointed but not surprised; Ross says she's even written to the premier's office and health minister Adrian Dix to no avail.

Now, residents are considering their next steps: filing complaints with the Ombudsman and Residential Tenancy Branch, or hiring an environmental law firm to take on their case.

Ross says both agencies need to do their job: Northern Health to ensure safe water is being supplied to citizens, and Sterling to honour its contract with residents of the park.

“We haven’t really gotten any communication from Sterling in a year. Anytime we speak to them they ask us to speak to Northern Health,” she said, adding the health officer residents have been dealing with through Northern Health was leaving for a maternity leave. "It's kind of hard to have somebody who's brand new come in to sit down for a meeting, who probably doesn't have all the details yet. So I'm not overly surprised."

Residents say they are being supplied with bottled water as an interim measure as the problem persists, but that it isn’t enough.

Some believe the root issue is the actual water supply itself, which they say is sourced from a well at the bottom of a hill in the park. The well is next to a stagnant holding pond for emergency fire response, according to residents, who have also had to deal with a number of boil water advisories over the last year due to E. coli bacteria.

The problem with boiling water, however, is that then concentrates the already unacceptably high levels of manganese.

"The water has never been good," said Bernie Pettipas who has lived in Shady Acres for the last seven years.

"We need a new system, we do not need a well," he said. "They need to put something else in there. Either haul the water in to a holding tank, which gives us city water, or actually connect to city water would be the solution in my mind. We're not that far away from the Charlie Lake system."

"Nobody came. It's not their problem," he added. "If it was in their neighbourhood or in their homes, they'd be here."

Ross agreed the water source is the key issue, and that she has also taken up the matter with MLA Dan Davies, Fort St. John mayor Lilia Hansen, and Brad Sperling, who represents the area at the regional district.

"We need Northern Health to tell Sterling to do their job. They need to both do their jobs. Get us the water and fix the water," she said.

Davies is currently in Victoria as the legislature is in session, however, a constituency representative attended and told Tuesday's meeting that he has written and lobbied the health minister about the matter, and has had regular meetings with Northern Health about the issue.

"It is incredible that the residents of Shady Acres Trailer Park have been fighting for clean water for over a year with no resolution," Davies said in an emailed statement on Wednesday.

"I have been demanding that Northern Health and the government act immediately and am shocked at how slow the process is moving to get clean drinking water for the residents," he said. "My office will continue to work closely with the residents until this issue is resolved."

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