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Search for source of contamination in water continues in Champagne

CHAMPAGNEBottles of water were scattered through Champagne’s community hall Monday night as about 60 people gathered to discuss the…


Bottles of water were scattered through Champagne’s community hall Monday night as about 60 people gathered to discuss the town’s radioactive water.

Reporters were not allowed inside, but citizens were told that last week’s tests — which found radionuclides in seven of 12 water wells tested in Champagne — must be re-examined to be confirmed, Champagne/Aishihik First Nations spokesman Lawrence Joe said Tuesday.

While the tests could come back as false-positives, “The odds are there’s something there,” said Joe.

A gaggle of concerned observers attended Monday’s meeting, including officials from the Yukon government, Indian Affairs Canada and local politicians.

“I think Champagne/Aishihik and Yukon government officials are really trying to address this matter,” said Kluane MLA Gary McRobb on Tuesday.

“I don’t see anybody trying to hide anything.”

More results from tests are needed before any conclusions can be drawn, Dr. Rob Bousquet, the Yukon’s acting chief medical health officer, said after the meeting.

“We don’t have a problem; we may have a problem,” explained Bousquet.

“The logical thing to do is to not continue the exposure to water given these results, until we find out more.”

Champagne/Aishihik is working to identify the source of radiation in Champagne’s well water while also banning the water’s use, providing fresh water and keeping citizens informed.

But new soil and water tests have found radiation and a cocktail of chemicals, leading some to question US military activities in the town during the Second World War.

Water from the initial seven shallow wells that failed tests on September 1st is now being analyzed to identify the specific source of radiation, said Joe.

Results are expected by today or tomorrow.

“What that’s essentially going to tell us is if it’s artificial or if it’s natural,” he said.

The water’s being tested for lead, polonium and radium, many of which are common in the territory.

Officials are also testing for the artificial compounds cesium-137, iodine-131, tritium and strontium-90.

As well as uses in industry and medicine, strontium-90 is cited as a common contaminant found at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union.

“If it turns out to be artificial contamination then we’ll know we need to start looking for the point source,” said Joe. “If it’s natural contamination, then perhaps we need to look at different mitigation measures.”

Results from three separate wells tested for chemical contamination arrived Friday, with new, startling findings.

“That’s when the engine coolant, the paint thinner and the preservative were identified,” said Joe.

And soil tests results from 15 sites in Champagne arrived Monday.

Fourteen of 15 came back positive for beta radiation and one for alpha radiation, said Joe.

Alpha radiation is 20-times more harmful than beta, explained Bousquet.

Children in Champagne are being advised to wash their hands after playing outside, he said.

Three shallow wells that weren’t tested earlier — as well as the community well and the local spring water hole — will be tested this week for radiation, said Joe.

Uranium was found in an old community well in 2004.

The well was closed and a second well was drilled.

“We drilled even deeper and the uranium readings came back even higher,” said Joe.

Since the First Nations land claim took hold in 1995, water testing in Champagne has adhered to Yukon water standards, he said.

Those standards have only recently changed to include annual radiation tests.

But health concerns in Champagne, particularly cancers, go back to the 1990s.

Those worries were raised at the Champagne-Aishihik general assembly in July, said Joe.

“That’s why a month later we had a testing program that went out and started looking,” he said.

Cancer was a “huge” topic at Monday’s meeting, said Bousquet.

“They mentioned they have a high incidence of cancer in Champagne. The question was: ‘Is this cancer related to radiation?’”

That question was impossible to answer, as it requires baseline numbers before the radiation was introduced, and the source of the radiation is still unknown, he said.

“It’s a hard thing to tease out.”

It is not clear if the Yukon knows how many people have cancer in Champagne, though the normal incidence of cancer in Canada is one-in-three, said Bousquet.

Research into US military activities during the 1940s at Champagne has taken a new urgency following the radiation findings.

Champagne-Aishihik began researching that history in the early ‘90s.

The evidence in the Yukon archives “re-affirmed the concerns that have been raised by the community,” said Joe.

“There was a camp at Champagne; there was a sawmill north of Champagne, and there was a dump.

“I’m aware that there may have been three dump locations, but those remain to be followed up on.”

Maps were brought to Monday’s meeting to help elders identify dumpsites.

The potential for contaminants left behind by the US Army worries Joe.

“Point-source contamination introduced by some military activity is something that you don’t know the consequences of,” he said.

But uranium, radon and other radioactive elements occur naturally throughout the Yukon.

Joe is quietly hoping that’s the cause of radiation in Champagne.

Well water in Mendenhall Landing, about 25 kilometres from Champagne, has been found with two-and-a-half times the allowed amount of radiation, said Joe.

If uranium or another natural element is causing Champagne’s contamination, solutions can vary from filtering to fresh-water tanks, he said.

Several 195-litre tanks with potable water have been placed outside homes in Champagne while testing continues.

The First Nations are considering replenishing the tanks three times a week and hooking them to houses as a long-term solution to the situation, Joe said.

Champagne’s well water varies from passing the safety limit to being almost four times above the limit.

However if proposed revisions to federal standards are introduced, Champagne’s water may end up being 39-times above acceptable radiation levels, said Joe.

The question of responsibility has been bandied about following the radiation discoveries in Champagne.

While federal and Yukon officials routinely point out that Champagne/Aishihik are self-governing First Nations, Joe is adamant Ottawa bears some responsibility.

“They have a liability for cleanup, but also for the provision of safe drinking water,” he said.

Those discussions are ongoing and positive, Joe said

But until tests reveal what is causing Champagne’s radioactive water, not much can be done, he said.

 “We simply have a flag,” he explained.

“The flag doesn’t tell us, until we go through further testing, what the compound is and how much is there.”