Bubble, bubble, oil and trouble
“Whenever anyone came to my door, they were holding their nose”
When heavy equipment operators digging a trench for water and sewage lines struck oil in the Lower Base area last week, it didn’t take long for the news – and the smell – to spread.
The first to be affected were the workers themselves, who developed headaches and sore throats from the fumes.
Residents soon noticed that the atmosphere of their neighbourhood had taken a turn for the worse. “Whenever anyone came to my door, they were holding their nose,” said Matty McNair, whose house is just down the street from the excavation site.
By July 13, all three levels of government – the city of Iqaluit engineering department, the Government of Nunavut’s environment department and the federal department of Indian Affairs and Northern development – were involved in assessing the site.
A quick smell test indicated that the oily substance at the bottom of the 20-foot trench was likely diesel fuel mixed with water from melting permafrost. Samples were obtained, frozen, packed up and sent to a laboratory in the south for analysis.
Nunavut’s Workers Compensation Board directed workmen on the site, who are employed by Tower Arctic Ltd., to wear masks and protective clothing while the trench remained open.
The results of the analysis, which will likely be available by the end of this week, may help to pinpoint the source of the contamination. “There has been a lot of speculation about where it’s from,” said Earle Baddaloo, the GN’s director of environmental protection.
The site was used on and off by the U.S. Air Force from 1942 to the mid 1950s. The Canadian armed forces was also on the site for a while during this period,
At the very least, said Baddaloo, the analysis would be able to yield a rough idea of the vintage of the diesel fuel. If it’s decades old, that would allow investigators to rule out a spill or leak from a resident’s heating oil tank.
Brad Sokach, head of Iqaluit’s engineering department, said excavation in a nearby location about five years ago revealed some soil saturated with oil “but it wasn’t nearly as bad as what we’re dealing with here.”
The origin of the oil could be of crucial importance in determining who, if anyone, will pay for soil remediation and any other costs arising from the discovery.
With residents concerned about health issues and property values, governments have little choice but to take decisive action, which will likely include cleaning up the site.
Matty McNair said she was told by a foreman on the site that the U.S. air force used to maintain an oil drum cache in the area.
But Baddaloo said that no oil drums or other debris were found in the trench – just water with an oily sheen and an overpowering odour.
Whatever it proves to be, McNair said, “it’s stinky stuff.”
She said she is concerned about the health implications of the oily residue. But she said she’s also annoyed at the high rates paid by homeowners.
“The city never paid to put the roads in and now we’re faced with this. I”ve just finished paying a $16,000 installment on my land lease, and I’m not happy.”