City took a gamble with Iqaluit’s water supply

As officials worked to find the source of a reported fuel odour, why wasn’t there a warning the water might be contaminated?

After government officials in Iqaluit have confirmed fuel in the city’s water supply, the million-dollar question is why did it take so long to warn the public? (Photo by David Lochead)

By Randi Beers

Well, at least it isn’t benzene.

That was a bit of a silver lining to come out of the City of Iqaluit and Nunavut government’s joint news conference Oct. 15 confirming Iqaluit’s water supply is contaminated with fuel.

Benzene is a hydrocarbon with well-documented links to a variety of cancers in humans, so people drinking tap water in Iqaluit earlier this month are fortunate to not have to worry about that.

But what were people drinking in their tap water?

The culprit is most likely diesel or kerosene, says Nunavut’s chief public health officer Dr. Michael Patterson.

It’s not ideal, of course. It caused those headaches and stomach issues people around Iqaluit have been reporting for the past few weeks but, says Patterson, ingesting these chemicals is not known to cause long-term health effects in humans.

The other million-dollar question is, why did government officials wait so long after first hearing complaints to warn people about the possible contamination?

The first reports started coming in on Oct. 2, but there was no advisory about Iqaluit’s treated water until Oct. 12.

Mayor Kenny Bell offered an explanation to Nunatsiaq News last week that certain chemical reactions can cause a fuel-like odour in water.

He also insisted the city was testing the water every day and the results were coming back satisfactory.

But we now know the city hadn’t yet tested for hydrocarbons when it released a public notice Oct. 4 assuring the public that everything was fine.

The city’s chief administrative officer, Amy Elgersma, has offered another explanation.

She has said the public complaints weren’t consistent enough to suspect hydrocarbon contamination.

That’s curious, because those same complaints spurred the city to send emergency samples south to test specifically for hydrocarbons.

It’s understandable that government officials might not have wanted to create a panic over Iqaluit’s water supply before knowing for sure there was a reason to raise the alarm.

But the smell of fuel is distinctive, and if people were opening their taps and getting these types of fumes, maybe it wouldn’t have been such a terrible idea to err on the side of caution.

There is also no doubt Bell, Elgersma, and other people behind the scenes are working incredibly hard right now.

Elgersma isn’t just Iqaluit’s chief administrative officer, she’s helping to run the city’s department of public works because that department has been without a director for 15 months. In that stead, she was also tapped to lead the city’s investigation into the water complaints.

Now Bell, Elgersma and an untold number of other public servants are simultaneously working to make sure people have access to drinkable water while identifying and fixing the underlying problem.

But there’s no getting around the fact these same officials suspected something was wrong with the water and, without knowing how bad the problem was, chose to take a gamble over the health of almost 8,000 people living in Iqaluit.

So when a worker finally did lift that sealed lid on Oct. 12 and smelled the fumes that would finally lead to a do-not-consume order, we at Nunatsiaq News have to say — those calling the shots are darn lucky it wasn’t benzene.

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(58) Comments:

  1. Posted by City slicker on

    This article is spot on! The officials who mislead (albeit due to capacity and underqualified issues) the public need to be humble and own up to it. No more unfounded excuses. I’m not saying heads need to roll. But at the very least show humility, make a public apology, admit negligence for downplaying an issue and not having a qualified individual to handle the situation properly. The issue is very serious and could have been worse. With that said, I commend the city staff and officials for the response they put forth after Oct 12.

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    • Posted by Humility? on

      Humility from Mayor Bell? That epuld imply that he believes he agrees that he did something wrong. And he’s never wrong. It’s easier to blame it on climate change (which played a role in causing the issue, not the 2 week testing delay) or the nasty nasty media who’ve collaborated against him (despite Nunatsiaq having many reportors and a few editors during his term). He is BIGLY in the right so never doubt him.

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  2. Posted by Unknown on

    This is exactly what happens when you have completely unqualified people running very important things.

    What made mayor bell or Amy qualified to say there was no risk? Both have absolutely no qualifications to do so. This is an actual embarrassment and could have resulted in long-term effects to many many people. It may still.

    Someone needs to be held responsible for this. I would be keeping an eye on my side effects for the next several years.. I see a lawsuit coming their way.

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  3. Posted by Still here on

    Anywhere else in Canada heads would role, iqaluit is full of people in positions of manager and director with to many friends holding them in those positions , and not truly being accountable, also with no education to be making the decisions they are making, welcome to the world of nepotism, this is what happens!

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  4. Posted by Shelly on

    They gambled with our lives and health! Has anyone looked into a class action lawsuit?

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  5. Posted by Whose help accountable on

    Anyone else wondering where WSCC is at with this water issue? The whole city is tainted with awful water and no one is investigating? OR are they? No one is saying much at all, is there going to be an investigation? I’d love to see a statement from WSCC on the handling of this situation, the city and crew didn’t believe us and were encouraging us that it was safe to drink..…. and put all our lives at risk. Who the heck works at WSCC now here in Iqaluit?

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    • Posted by Hil on

      Why would WSCC be a major player in this? They look after workplace safety.

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    • Posted by S on

      I think you mean the Dept of Public Health. That’s the agency responsible.

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  6. Posted by Mistakes Made on

    Good Article, Randi Beers. Quick and concise to point out that the city officials erred in not warning the public earlier, making them believe that the water was safe to drink. Bell needs some humility.

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    • Posted by hermann kliest on

      Mistake Made; your comments are even funnier than what Don Burnstick would have put into words in his comedy shows…

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      • Posted by Why do this? on

        Hermann, you sully an already sullied name with non-sense like this

    • Posted by eman on

      We know it’s contaminated but what is the source? Or do they already know but aren’t saying?

  7. Posted by Timiusie on

    They stll haven’t given a quntity yet either to show how bad the contamination is/was.
    As well, mmost potable water flows through plastic lines. Will these be replaced? What about boilers and hot water makers? Will they be rrplaced?

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    • Posted by Quick answer on

      No, none of those things will be replaced. Once the water is safe again, flush out your home systems and you will be fine.

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  8. Posted by nis on

    Mayor Bell is upset about this editorial. He says it is irresponsible, and there was absolutely no gamble. What was it then? You told people, both in startements from the city and on social media using your “Mayor Bell” account, thatthe water was safe, there was no fuel in the water, and that tests (letting people assume the tests were for hydrocarbons, since you could say without hesitation that there was no fuel in the water) were satisfactory and met national standards. But no such test results existed. Maybe you didn’t know that, and you too just assumed they had tested for hydrocarbons and didn’t insist on the specirics. I have no idea. If that’s true, that’s a problem, but at least it would show humility and people can relate to that. It’s an even bigger problem if you did know. But it’s one of the two, which is it?
    Also, please accept the fact that people aren’t cowards or keyboard warriors for not commenting using our names or aren’t commenting on NN’s Facebook page. Some of us risk losing our jobs for openly criticizing local government. So please, take some of these comments to heart and acknowledge the concerns in an unguarded way.

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    • Posted by Duh on

      Mayor bell loves the spotlight until it is critical of his actions and then the media become a bunch of liars. What in this editorial is not factual mayor bell?? You were all over Facebook telling residents the water was safe to drink, the city issued a statement, you were no testing for hydrocarbons at that time. Where is the lie? If this was the previous mayor, mayor bell would be the first one wagging his finger.

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    • Posted by Ha ha on

      Has anyone else seen a public figure so concerned over the local media, news comments, posts on social media etc? This man checks all outlets constantly afraid someone will strike his ego.

      It’s actually hilarious. Stop looking at your phone and start looking for qualified professionals to run the affairs of the city. Or better yet, step down as you’ve proved your complete incompetence to run this city safely.

      Ps.. I know you’ll read this comment in about five minutes. Hi Kenny hahaha

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  9. Posted by Benzene on

    But benzene is found in diesel.

    And since the water actually made people sick, with headaches and stomach issues reported, then maybe people should be concerned with how everyone was told the water was fine by non-experts who don’t understand science.

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  10. Posted by Tagak Curley on

    Not many comments about water inspections. I am sure it is a dtsrdard procedure to inspect water quality in Nunavut water supplies. I think it would make sense to all communities to make inspections more regularly and compulsory, my thoughts.

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    • Posted by Not voting for you on

      Our water is always being monitored, just not for hydrocarbons… this comment isn’t as insightful or profound as you want it to be.

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  11. Posted by Nice work, Nunatsiaq on

    Great article, nice to see some ‘to the point’ and serious writing from this source again.

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  12. Posted by no on

    with a water issue/potential emergency, i think the city should have gone straight to the ppl who made the initial reports and interviewed them and investigated the water supply THAT SAME DAY. yes this may mean you have to actually do work for once, but at least you don’t have to ‘gamble’ with the community’s lives in the process and face lawsuits and public embarrassment later. your job is caring for the community, you do it. Bad water? URGENT INVESTIGATION. simple as that! and also, ‘at least it isn’t benzene’ is setting the bar pretty low for our esteemed city workers XD haha wowww

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  13. Posted by I Wonder on

    I wonder how long this has been seeping into our water system, before it was first reported on October 2. I am willing to bet it has been a minimum 2 months for sure, and it’s only in the last couple of weeks its finally made it’s way into our system enough for residents to report it. This is way worse than they’re making it out to be.

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    • Posted by Lee L on

      Not my water.. not my circus but ….as an outsider looking in …
      this article is just TRYING to stir up sh@t. It would be better if the author raised the question as to what work is being done to identify the source of this contamination and what progress is being made in that investigation. It appears unlikely that the contamination existed before this event and the source should be traceable if a contract is let to experts with proper equipment. UNLESS…it was a one time intentional ‘spill’ that has yet to completely flush from the system.
      In that case you would need a criminal investigation.
      I doubt any mayor can run a water system, and will only act on what the service employees know or are saying.

  14. Posted by name on

    where did the hydrocarbons come from? Thin air? You can’t just flush out the holding tank with water, you have to use special chemicals? City is hiding something or protecting someone.

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  15. Posted by Sterile not sterile on

    Has anyone stopped to consider any surgical instruments or endoscopes cleaned and sterilized during the 10 days of inaction were done so with contaminated water? That is a major concern that is not being discussed.

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  16. Posted by Joe Binn on

    The gross incompetence and negligence go from top-down at the city, and everybody knows it. I’m pretty sure that the water plan in Iqaluit requires a certified operator. Who are the certified operators these days? Has anyone asked the question to the City Council and the Mayor? I’m pretty sure the SAO and the Mayor are not certified operators for this water plant. BTW where are our GN officials? Nobody is checking if the City is complying with all the safety and health rules? It’s about time that we, the resident of Iqaluit, request that our elected official pass a competence test before being eligible for election! This is prosperous and flagrant negligence from the City of Iqaluit and our officials. Blaming it on housing, smell inconsistency and warming is ludacris! Did the Mayor and the SAO ( who are experts on housing! ) ask the GN to see if they could enter into an MOU for staff housing for key employees necessary to run the city facilities?? I don’t think so. The city is understaffed in every department. Why? I think it’s self-explanatory. Employees are undermined, micromanaged by the city council, the mayor and the SAO. This is most likely to be the reason they didn’t have key employees like an engineer or certified people to run a water plant at the city. It’s revolving doors at the City…employees are quitting and it’s at a dangerous and critical point where we are seeing incidents like the water crisis. Please, resign and let qualified people run the city!

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    • Posted by Transcripts on

      A high school diploma should be required at the very least…mayor?

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      • Posted by Raise the bar on

        Let’s be brave and aim even higher than a high school diploma, what do you say?

  17. Posted by Jim on

    Did you know Nunavut is the only territory or province in Canada that still doesn’t require any qualifications to be in charge of drinking water!?
    Mind you, certifications and ability aren’t always too closely related…

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  18. Posted by Transparency on

    Mayor bell claims this is ‘fake news’ but won’t elaborate on what is not accurate? Sigh…two more years of unanswered questions?

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  19. Posted by Arcticmadman on

    Great job reporting, now we wait for answers in the follow up. Why it to 10 days to test for what people were smelling, also would like to know how bad the results were.
    There needs to be an investigation into this.
    We need qualified people in these positions.

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  20. Posted by Results on

    Can results be shared showing that there is no benzene? And what about toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene? Are these chemicals present? Show us the results please.

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    • Posted by Concerned southerner on

      I have asked the City for the results and they said ask the NU Dept of Health. So I did but didn’t get them. I am interested in knowing the results of the testing for two reasons:
      A) I have friends living in Iqaluit;
      B ) to determine if home scale water treatment units with activated carbon can remove the HC at these concentrations.
      Flushing the city’s pipes will dilute the contamination but it could still be leaching from the pipes in minor concentrations. Flushing the homeowner’s pipes has to occur too. It will decrease but not go to zero right away.

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    • Posted by Arcticmadman on

      I agree publish the test results with a list of acceptable limits. Without this there will always be doubt and distrust. We need transparency.

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  21. Posted by MayorBlaBla on

    The mayor mixing up water quantity issues and water quality issues and blaming it all on climate change without evidence and making other unsubstantiated comments is really annoying. The only things that connect the previous water (quantity) issue and the current water (quality) issue are the substance that is affected (water) and the actor (city). The causes of the issues are otherwise likely very different. The mayor needs to stick to media lines (assuming he has some) and stop making stuff up.

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  22. Posted by Anonymous on

    Amy needs to get out ! I lost trust in her and this team. Our health and safety is not a game !
    An incompetent team running the city ! #AmyOut #BellOut

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  23. Posted by Nunavut on

    You have the CMO of nunavut saying there is no harm in drinking this water! There is no long term effects from drinking fuel tainted water? Ok, so why are we drinking water from the river ? Resign, all of you! Bring the previous mayor back, she would have all this figured out and resolved in minutes, not weeks and delayed with lies, after lies and fairy tale solutions!

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  24. Posted by Immiq on

    The building just below the Power Plant is the water treatment plant? I always thought it was a part of the power plant. Bad planning.

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  25. Posted by Imiqti on

    So… the building just below the power plant is the water treament plant?? No wonder it got contaminated.

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  26. Posted by Tom Shelby on

    Its nice to put the blame on the Mayor and City and everyone for no qualifications but it is what it is, there are lots of people in jobs up here that aren’t necessarily qualified but are at least filling the job until someone comes in that’s qualified. A lot of people like to blame the City and GN for all their problems in life without actually stepping up themselves and helping or doing what they can to help. Just because you have people on social media complaining doesn’t mean there is an actual issue. People whine on social media everyday, if the City jumped every time someone was complaining they would get nothing done. It seems more like the boy who cried wolf, if people would stop complaining about nothing and only complain about the real issues, maybe then the City would take them more serious and look into issues. Did anyone actually speak to the City about the fuel smell or was it all from whining on social media? People need to report properly. And no I’m not saying the City is off the hook, just tired of everyone whining about everything and the real issues possibly getting played down because of whining.

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    • Posted by Swallow me on

      Hi Kenny! How do you handle all the negativity? Oh yes, you don’t. Where’s Janet? Oh yes, trying to win a more prestigious job as MLA. Bunch of politicians.

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  27. Posted by Curious on

    I have a quick question and am hoping someone may have the answer.

    I have heard that Climate Change had some sort of involvement in the the contamination of the water. What exactly was its impact? Is it something to do with permafrost?

    Apologies in advance if I overlooked something in the article.

    Thanks in advance!

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  28. Posted by Qavvigarjuk on

    Looking at the safety datasheet for Kerosene it is classified as a carcinogen Category 1A which means that it is known to have carcinogenetic potential for humans.
    Kerosene ingredients according to the same data sheet comprises of Hydrocarbons C7-C9, BENZENE, Naphtalene. Folks google Safety data sheet for Kerosene for all the information you need to know.

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  29. Posted by Jenny Wong on

    Kerosene and Diesel both have benzene and there is no safe limit, look up Materials data safety sheet, often it’s inhaled via fumes, I can’t even imagine ingested. This is seriously disturbing and my heart breaks for all those affected.

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  30. Posted by Runner7922 on

    Here are a few of my observations/comments…
    -You do not need a lab test for hydrocarbons. If you can smell it then you have it. Lab test can confirm type of hydrocarbon. A nose is actually a very good test instrument for trained water operator in this regard.
    – Routine water testing is generally for bacteriological contamination. Bacteriological tests do not detect chemical contaminants. If you are told water is being “tested”, you have to ask, “what was it tested for?” Chemical tests are not carried out as routinely as bacteriological tests. Check the suggested protocols in the “Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Safety”
    – As someone else already pointed out, where did this fuel come from? This has to be determined before the system can be decontaminated or else the problem will continue. Clearly, it is not from “natural sources”.
    – Lab results of public water testing should be posted, online and on a bulletin board at a public office, always, no exceptions. Tests were paid for by the public and carried out for the public’s benefit. Public has absolute right to know and be able to draw their own conclusions or ask their own doctor for medical advice.
    – Content description is a part of product labelling and is the law in Canada and around the world, so why not drinking water? Boggles the mind. My jurisdiction learned this lesson many years ago.

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  31. Posted by nocompainer on

    Quite check incoming water pipe underground.
    The new fuel tank nearby was built soon. Maybe?

  32. Posted by Steve Lenaghan on

    Iqaluit joins the long list of indigenous communities with bad water. There are southern communities that have been on boil water for decades. The media gave up reporting those because nothing was being done. Now a regional capital is front and center. Oh well, there are people from Flint Michigan still looking for work

    • Posted by Conrad L on

      Water is the municipality’s responsibility. That being said, if this is from lake Geraldine, then we can blame the Hunter and Trappers association for pigheadedly blocking the city from using Sylvia grinnell as a not only sustainable source, but a reliably high quality one too.

    • Posted by Pain In The Groen on

      You bring up an important point. It should also be noted that Iqaluit is a territorial capital, not just a regional one. The city is the equivalent of a provincial capital.

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