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Newfoundland students get bottled water after well near cemetery raises concerns

Brown water runs out of a tap at Mobile Central High School in Mobile, N.L., in this Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017 handout photo. Students at Mobile Central High School in Mobile, N.L., are drinking bottled water over concerns that their high school's well is too close to an adjacent graveyard. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
September 08, 2017 - 9:15 AM

MOBILE, N.L. - Students in Newfoundland are drinking bottled water amid concerns about how close their high school's well is to an adjacent graveyard.

They attend Mobile Central High School, about a 40-minute drive south of St. John's. It opened in 2008 right next to a cemetery that has been there since the late 1800s.

"There's signs all over the school saying: Do Not Drink the Water," said one student who took photos of brown water Wednesday as it ran from a washroom tap.

"We're not allowed to drink any water. All of our taps are closed off."

The student spoke on condition of anonymity about what has become a sensitive topic in the small community.

One parent estimates the well is within about 10 metres of the closest graves, which are on the other side of a retaining wall, but a school board spokesman said it is about 40 metres from the closest grave.

Education Minister Dale Kirby said Friday it's not unusual for well water to run brown for a time after less use during summer months. He said it has been tested and is safe to drink.

Still, notices are up in the school as the analysis done in recent weeks by provincial Service NL staff has not been fully assessed and endorsed by the local health authority, Kirby said.

And he said it's up to the Newfoundland and Labrador English School District, which initially provided the bottled water, to decide when it's no longer needed at the Grade 7 to 12 school of about 260 students.

Ken Morrissey, a spokesman for the board, said no explicit distance from graves is required under sanitation regulations of the Public Health Act.

He also said in an emailed response that, although the well water tested safe in July, students will receive bottled water while a waterline is moved as part of a planned extension of the school.

Kirby accused opponents of the school extension project of hyping water concerns to advance their cause.

"There is not a single doubt in my mind this is entirely political," Kirby said. "This is about stirring up as much consternation in the local parent community as possible, and I'm not sure to what end."

The high school extension to be completed by next fall is going ahead. Kirby said it has nothing to do with water safety.

Susan Stamp, one of almost 800 members of a local concerned parents' group fighting the project, said the water wasn't discoloured last year. She said parents and students are worried.

"There's probably no one getting sick at this point immediately, but what are any long-term effects?" she said in an interview. "No one knows.

"It's a little disturbing that we know that for years students have been drinking this water and now the government is forcing the issue and saying we're going to be drinking it for the foreseeable future without doing anything major to move the well."

Caskets were exposed during an extension of the old high school decades ago, Stamp added.

Loyola Hutchings, chairman of the Mobile Cemetery Committee, said there are about 200 to 250 graves there. Its oldest section closest to the school includes several graves that are no longer marked.

"Some of them are from the late 1800s so there's nothing left there, no crosses. There was only wooden crosses done then and they were right up against the (school) fence line."

Families whose loved ones are buried there are concerned about pending construction, Hutchings said Friday.

"They don't want any more graves disturbed."

Stamp's group, the Concerned Parents of St. Bernard's and Mobile Central High, has lobbied the province for years to build a new middle school in the fast-growing region.

Instead, the governing Liberals plan to expand the Mobile Central High School to accommodate Grade 6 pupils. Stamp said nine extra classrooms and a new computer lab will only temporarily ease over-crowding — a claim Kirby denies, based on his department's forecasts.

Stamp said many parents aren't convinced there will be adequate water and septic service.

"They're going to just compound issues and complicate the matter by trying to build an extension on that building."

Follow @suebailey on Twitter.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2017
The Canadian Press

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