A trailer park resident in northeast B.C. says her landlord and the regional health authority have failed to address high levels of manganese in the water supply for more than three years — and the problem still hasn't been fixed.
Cassandra Ross says she didn't even learn of the issues with the drinking water at Shady Acres Mobile Home Park until a boil water advisory was put in place for high bacteria levels more than two years after the manganese issue was found.
Ross has also yet to receive thousands of dollars in compensation from her landlord, Sterling Property Management, despite a ruling by the Residential Tenancy Branch (RTB) in July.
Ross says she is now considering going to small claims court and filing a complaint with the Better Business Bureau to hold Sterling to account and highlight the plight of the 300 or so residents at the trailer park northwest of Fort St. John, B.C.
She says beyond an email in May sent to all residents promising that work was being done, communication with her landlord has been sporadic.
"Sterling has done everything in their power to avoid us," she said. "We've given them the opportunity to sit down and have conversations. We've called and asked questions.
"We had a town hall meeting last February and invited them to it. They gave us no information."
Contamination detected in 2020
Ross took Sterling to the RTB in July, seeking a rent reduction equivalent to two years' rent. She was awarded $5,196 by the board, but she still hasn't been paid a month later.
The RTB ruling, dated July 13, lays out the timeline of the issues with drinking water at Shady Acres.
It says Northern Health sent Sterling a letter on Feb. 25, 2020 stating that water tested at the site was above guidelines revised by Health Canada for concentrations of manganese in drinking water.
In the letter, the health authority said high levels of manganese can be harmful for children, who can suffer neurological effects and deficits in attention and memory.
Water exceeding guidelines for manganese can be used for cooking and drinking by non-vulnerable groups and is still considered safe for handwashing, bathing and showering, the letter said.
The letter also established the course of action the property management company was expected to take to resolve the issue.
Ross testified to the RTB that she only learned of the problem from her landlord in May 2022, despite Sterling providing the RTB a letter to residents dated a day after Sterling received the Feb. 25, 2020, letter from Northern Health.
Ross, who has a nine-year-old child, said the contamination was particularly concerning. The family has lived at Shady Acres since 2015.
"At the end of the day, it's Canada," she said. "We're a country where you should have something as simple as water."
While the maximum acceptable concentration of manganese is 0.12 milligrams per litre, Northern Health said a May 2022 sample showed levels at Shady Acres were 1.96 milligrams per litre.
The RTB ruling says no one has been able to locate the source of the manganese in drinking water at Shady Acres. Health Canada says the element may be present in water from the environment, but also as a result of activities such as mining and steel making.
High bacteria levels
Concern over drinking water at Shady Acres was compounded in April 2022 when the park was placed under a boil water advisory by Northern Health due to high levels of bacteria in the water.
Ross testified to the RTB that it was in a letter from Sterling at that time that she learned of the manganese problem. The letter said tenants should not consume the water due to high bacterial counts in the water — and that boiling the water would concentrate the manganese and not remove it.
In a statement to CBC, a Northern Health spokesperson said the sample results at the time showed potential bacterial contamination, but that was due to a sample collection issue. A subsequent sample showed no ongoing bacterial contamination.
"The notification for the system was returned to and remains as a water quality advisory, due to the ongoing elevated manganese levels," the spokesperson said.
In May 2022 the landlord provided tenants of the park with bottled drinking water on request.
Sterling Property Management has not responded to requests for comment.
The Northern Health spokesperson said they are not aware of sample results from Shady Acres showing acceptable levels of manganese.
Ross told CBC News the health authority has not done enough to compel Sterling to provide clean water.
"Northern Health says they care. But their behaviour and their actions clearly state they don't."
MLA calls for action
On May 30, Dan Davies, the B.C. United MLA for the region, sent a letter about the problem to Health Minister Adrian Dix referencing another Shady Acres resident, Nicole Sorin, who also claimed she only learned of the manganese problem in 2022 as part of the boil water advisory.
The letter said Sorin, who has a six-year-old son, underwent testing to determine manganese levels in her body, which came back as excessive. The letter claims her health has been affected.
Davies called for the ministry and Northern Health to ensure water met Health Canada guidelines at the site.
Dix responded to the letter on Aug. 21, saying drinking water "is the utmost priority for the Ministry of Health," and defended actions Northern Health had taken since 2019 to inform and address water quality issues in the region over new Health Canada manganese guidelines.
The Dix letter, along with the RTB ruling, both detailed efforts Sterling has made to put in place a water-treatment system at the park to reduce manganese levels.
The system is still being configured to adequately filter the water to get manganese levels under Health Canada guidelines, according to the letters.
"Once Northern Health is confident that manganese levels are consistently meeting guidelines, they will work with Shady Acres to lift the advisory," reads Dix's letter.
But Ross has lost all confidence in her landlord and the health authority.
"I don't see Sterling doing anything anytime soon — because on top of that, Northern Health hasn't required them to," she said.
Ross is urging other residents of Shady Acres' 72 units to file with the RTB to get compensation.
The RTB does not enforce orders, so Ross will have to turn to B.C. Provincial Court if Sterling does not pay her the amount ordered.