Radon probable cause of radiation in Champagne’s water

Well water in Champagne is contaminated with gross alpha radiation, but the source appears natural and benign, say officials.

Well water in Champagne is contaminated with gross alpha radiation, but the source appears natural and benign, say officials.

This following a closed-door community meeting on Monday to release the long-awaited test results.

“We tested for the worst, and what we didn’t find are the worst,” Lawrence Joe, Champagne/Aishihik director of lands and resources, said on Tuesday.

Highly radioactive compounds, including lead, polonium and thorium were sought but not found in the water samples, said Joe.

Preliminary screening of Champagne’s community wells on September 1 found gross alpha and beta radiation levels in seven of 12 wells tested, at up to four times above accepted limits.

Further tests of soil found radiation as well.

Champagne residents have been under a complete water-use ban since September 19.

The preliminary tests were analyzed to pinpoint the source of the radiation and those results were released Monday.

Though not all results have returned, Health Canada has given a professional opinion on Champagne’s situation, said Joe.

“We know there’s something else out there, and the professional judgment of the Radiation Protection Bureau is it’s likely radon,” he said.

Radon is a naturally occurring gas created from the disintegration of radium that is common in air and water in the Yukon and around the world.

Though natural, radon can pose health risks, including cancers.

But while the biggest worry appears over, contaminants including engine coolant, paint thinner and prescription medication remain in several wells in Champagne.

“Some of the compounds we are finding in the water — whether it’s the engine coolant or the paint thinner — should not be there at any level,” said Joe.

“We do have some comfort in that these are very low levels of contamination, but they’re still there.”

A toxicologist will be consulted to determine if there are acceptable levels for the contaminants, and a water hydrologist will be brought to Champagne to conduct a water survey to locate the contamination source, he said.

“They’re obviously coming from somewhere, so our next step is to determine where.”

Champagne sits along the old Alaska Highway and was the site of a US military work camp and sawmill during the 1940s.

There are three known dumps near the village, said Joe.

At earlier meetings, Champagne elders were asked to identify known locations of dumpsites in the village.

Though officials believe the gross alpha radiation present in Champagne’s water is radon, and have therefore deemed the water safe to drink, in light of the entire contamination picture, the water ban remains, said Joe.

“The order is still in effect, but the advice we have at this time is we will be pursuing our council to amend the order to allow water use for laundry, for washing, for showering,” he said.

Several 195-litre water tanks have been set-up outside homes in Champagne, replenished by the Champagne/Aishihik First Nations with potable water from Haines Junction at a cost of $1,500 per week.

An expert will soon determine which houses can have a tank permanently installed inside and which require outdoor sheds for the winter, said Joe.

Either way, a solution must be found, he said.

“We’re racing the season right now. We’re being pushed by the frost.”

The Champagne/Aishihik First Nations has had lawmaking authority over water services since its self-government agreement was signed in 1995.

But Champagne sits on category B land, meaning anything below the surface is retained by the Crown, said Joe.

While officials from the Yukon and federal governments have been at meetings since the initial water ban, both have deferred responsibility for Champagne’s situation to the First Nations.

Joe is adamant the feds have created programs and increased funding in the wake of water tragedies in Walkerton and Kashechewan, Ontario, that Champagne/Aishihik First Nations are eligible for.

“The First Nations may have lawmaking jurisdiction, but we also have the ability to negotiate funding to administer that legislation,” he said.

He also feels drinking water standards in the Yukon are needed.

“Yukon legislation would help with these private wells,” he said. “There is no legislation in the Yukon. There’s very generic legislation; it’s not specific whatsoever.

“That would help us.”

But Patricia Brooks, drinking water program co-ordinator with environmental health services, doesn’t feel changes to Yukon water standards would help Champagne’s situation.

“What they’re finding in the wells out there is unusual and generally related to a source of contamination,” said Brooks on Wednesday.

“You wouldn’t have a routine testing program for the type of substances they’re finding out there,” she said.