Five Yukon communities will receive water treatment facilities, built with money announced in Tuesday’s federal budget, to remove arsenic from drinking water.
But only three of the projects — in Ross River, Haines Junction and Teslin — will be put in places that need them, if Premier Dennis Fentie is correct.
The other two locations, Fentie told reporters on Wednesday — Carcross and Marsh Lake — do not have high levels of arsenic in the drinking water, says Yukon’s Health Department.
What’s more, it appears two other First Nation communities with excessive levels of arsenic in their drinking water were left off Fentie’s list.
They’re Tagish, operated by the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, and the Takhini River subdivision, operated by the Champagne/Aishihik First Nations.
Fentie’s list of communities to receive water treatment came from the federal government, said spokeswoman Roxanne Vallevand.
The Health Department’s list of communities with high arsenic levels comes from the territory’s environmental health lab.
While the mix-up is almost sure to be solved before ground is broken for the five projects, the confusion does not inspire much confidence in the planning behind the federal government’s massive spending splurge and the territory’s own co-ordination efforts.
The water treatment projects are to cost $10 million. Three-quarters of the cost will be paid by the federal government, with the remainder covered by the territory. It’s unclear when they would be built.
The work will help Yukon comply with new federal water-quality guidelines. In 2007, Canada increased the maximum acceptable concentration of arsenic to 0.010 mg/L from 0.025 mg/L.
All five on the Health Department’s list of high-arsenic communities have arsenic concentrations slightly greater than the new threshold but beneath the old limit.
Arsenic occurs naturally in certain mineral deposits. It is tasteless, odourless and linked with cancer.
Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable.
Federal funds for water treatment come from one of several pots of money, which are to collectively disgorge nearly $12 billion on new infrastructure across Canada over the next two years.
For Yukon, the spending means upgrades to schools, health centres, recreation facilities, roadwork and waterlines.
Fentie pointed to cultural centres in Haines Junction and Whitehorse as other examples of work to be sped up.
Yukon has also been promised money to help double the capacity of the Mayo hydroelectric dam and to connect the territory’s two power grids, said Fentie.
And Yukon will receive $50 million to build or repair social housing.
On top of this, while provincial equalization payments remain frozen, territorial transfer money for the Yukon will increase by about $47 million this year, said Fentie.
“There’s lots, folks,” Fentie told reporters. “Our intent here is to keep the pump primed.”
But some worry Yukon may not fully cash in on federal infrastructure money.
Much of the money is meant to be spent quickly. Yet Bev Buckway, mayor of Whitehorse and president of the Association of Yukon Communities, said she has yet to hear from the territory as to which municipal projects will be put forward to receive federal help.
It appears the territory won’t make final decisions on which projects to submit until the end of May, after a consultant tours the territory to hold a series of public meetings on what Yukoners want to see built.
Buckway fears the Yukon may miss out on a building season as a result.
The consultation tour was planned back when Ottawa proposed to spread money from the Building Canada Fund over seven years. Now much spending has been compressed into just two years.
Yet, Yukon is sticking with plans to wait half a year to hold a bunch of meetings before it decides which projects it wants funded.
Fentie dismissed the idea that his government may move too slowly.
“We don’t have that problem in the Yukon,” he said.
The biggest problem, he insisted, will be finding enough skilled workers to keep up with government building projects.
If municipalities want to build projects, they already have money from the federal gas tax, he added.
“I hope they’re investing some of the money sitting in their bank accounts,” he said.
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