Both the high school and elementary school in Attawapiskat are closed, the people are in a panic and Indian and Northern Affairs is not giving any answers.
During the Ontario spring break, INAC decided that it was time to tear down the former J. R. Nakogee elementary school that had been closed since 2000 after a 30-year-old diesel spill, on which the school was built, turned toxic.
The problem in doing so however, according to Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for the Timmins-James Bay riding, was that INAC commenced this project without the proper safety precautions and with no clean-up plan for the site until 2011.
“There were no tarps up, and heavily contaminated mould and benzene-contaminated waste was being carted through the town in open trucks. This was being done while children were in school and they were getting sick,” said Angus.
Since the J. R. Nakogee was shut down, the elementary students in the community have been attending classes in portable-trailer classrooms that were only feet away from the original school. The community of Attawapiskat has been in a dispute with INAC to get a new school built since 2000 and was promised one until Chuck Strahl became the minister for the department and pulled the plug on the operation.
The old school however had been acting as a cap to contain the toxic spill and would have remained as such had the site not been disturbed.
Shortly after the demolition of the school began, the children in those portables began to get ill with some even throwing up in the classrooms.
“We’ve been saying from the beginning that there had better be a plan to deal with the site once the soil is exposed with its 60,000 gallons of leukemia-causing benzene,” said Angus.
The community of Attawapiskat declared a state of emergency and moved all the community’s children, including the high-school students, on March 24.
Strahl, on the other hand, cannot seem to understand what the problem is with the community oor why they called the state of emergency.
“Why they’re pulling their kids out of school at this moment is unclear, given there’s no indications that there’s a health problem,” Strahl told the Sun Media Corporation on March 25.
Strahl said Health Canada and an independent engineering firm were closely monitoring the demolition work at the former school. Health Canada has also proclaimed that the results from all test sites indicated that there are no health or safety concerns in a recent statement.
While the demolition of the old school was taking place, a coalition of four teachers from the Toronto Catholic District School Board arrived in the community to work with the primary children and their teachers on literacy. They were shocked and horrified at what they witnessed.
One of the teachers, Brenda Stewart, sent a letter to Angus to share her feelings with him on the situation.
“We were there during the demolition. We experienced the awful smell, the headaches and nausea, the noise, the shaking of the buildings and homes we stayed in, all while the students were in school. They were not allowed out for recess because the machinery was in such close proximity,” said Stewart.
“As someone raised in Toronto I know that such a situation here would be dealt with immediately and no child would ever be put in such a dangerous position as to sit in a classroom or play in a schoolyard steps away from a toxic-waste site,” she went on to say.
According to Angus, the community has lost complete and total faith in both INAC and Health Canada.
About a month before the demolition began, Health Canada inspectors came to test the air quality in the trailers that the elementary students use as the NDP had complained that the agency would only test during the summer, after the students left.
According to Angus, they found carbon-dioxide levels at 3000 parts per million which is three times the acceptable limit. When a teacher asked if that was the reason why her class was acting drowsy and complaining of headaches, the inspector apparently told her to “just open a window.” In mid-February in Attawapiskat the temperature was approximately -30.
Since the community declared the state of emergency it has had several meetings with INAC but no resolution has come forward yet.
“There have been meetings every day because people are afraid, especially those living near the school and the contaminated site. They know that even small amounts of benzene in the air will lead to higher risks of leukemia,” said Angus.
View the internal INAC briefing note referred to in this article in PDF format