Explain like I’m 5: How did fuel make it into Iqaluit’s water supply?

The answer isn’t as simple as one might expect

City staff excavated the suspected source of the water supply’s fuel contamination in November, before removing it from the nearby water treatment plant. (Photo courtesy of the City of Iqaluit)

By Randi Beers

The fuel contamination of Iqaluit’s water supply left people asking a lot of questions, not least of which was — how did it get there in the first place?

Answering this question was one requirement among a longer list of must-dos before the territory’s chief public health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson, would consider telling people the city’s water was safe to drink again after diesel fuel was detected in the city’s water system in October. Patterson did lift the do-not-consume water advisory on Dec. 10, nearly two months after it was imposed on Oct. 12. 

The original suspect was a crack in one of two underground holding tanks at Iqaluit’s water treatment plant, where water sits in chlorine before moving into a treated reservoir, called the North Clear well.

That tank is where the bulk of the fuel was found. In fact, according to numbers released by the Department of Health earlier this month, fuel levels categorized as F2 hydrocarbons (which includes diesel and kerosene) in that tank were 5.3 million micrograms per litre, or 1.3 million times over what’s considered safe for consumption.

But no obvious cracks were found in the North Clear well, Iqaluit’s chief administrative officer Amy Elgersma said at an Oct. 22 news conference. A month later, the city announced the fuel had come from a tank located nowhere near the North Clear well. So how did it end up accumulating there?

Fuel leaking from this tank made its way into Iqaluit’s water treatment system two months ago. (Photo courtesy of the City of Iqaluit)

City officials hired an engineering consulting firm called WSP Canada to get to the bottom of the mystery, and engineer Ian Moran provided the city with a two-page written report that explains everything. That report was provided to Nunatsiaq News by city spokesperson Aleksey Cameron.

The answer starts with a slow drip from a 60-year-old fuel tank, located outside the plant itself, and ends with a scientific phenomenon called petroleum vapour intrusion.

But let’s start at the beginning, in a place called the void.

“The void, as it is called, is the space between the water treatment plant and exposed bedrock,” states the report.

“The intent of the void is to provide an air barrier between the water treatment plant and an external environment, similar to how an insulated coffee mug works to keep your coffee hot. In this case, the water treatment plant is the smaller vessel within a larger vessel.”

Experts aren’t sure when, but at some point, a tank forgotten in the void years ago started leaking fuel. That fuel dripped down to the lowest part of the void, which is underneath the water treatment plant. 

A surge tank, which holds wastewater from within the plant, sits just above that part of the void.

Eventually, the fuel got mixed with groundwater at the bottom of the void, and that contaminated water reached the bottom of the surge tank. The surge tank is made of concrete, which has natural pores. The fuel was able to “wick” up through those pores, into the tank, according to the report.

Engineer Ian Moran provided this visual overview of how Iqaluit’s water was contaminated by diesel hydrocarbons. The fuel leaked underneath the plant, was sucked up through natural pores in a tank at the bottom of the plant, vapourized, and eventually made its way to a raw water tank. (Graphic courtesy of Ian Moran/WSP Canada Inc.)

From there, the fuel continued to collect and vapourize in the surge tank until pressure created by the accumulating gas reached a point where it had to go somewhere. So it was pushed up, out of the surge tank, through an empty pipe to an unused tank underneath the water treatment plant. 

The fuel continued to accumulate and vapourize, causing pressure outside the surge tank to rise too. Eventually, those gases found a way into a raw water tank that feeds into the water treatment plant through a phenomenon called petroleum vapour intrusion — it’s a fancy name that describes how certain, sometimes dangerous, gases can rise from underground into buildings above. Homeowners, especially, would be familiar with a similar type of vapour intrusion, as it’s how radon gets into basements. 

By now, hydrocarbon vapours had infiltrated the water that moves through Iqaluit’s water treatment plant, and it would only be a matter of time before people started reporting the smell of fuel in their tap water.

In the end, there were no cracks found in any of the tanks or wells at the water treatment plant, including the North Clear well, according to the report.

People in Iqaluit were given the OK to start drinking their tap water again, as of Dec. 10, and a real-time hydrocarbon monitoring station is in place to alert officials of future contamination.

“As a result, the City of Iqaluit now has one of the most stringent water testing systems in Canada,” states the city’s water facts webpage.

Chief public health officer Dr. Michael Patterson has said the Health Department will order a third-party review of how the government handled the fuel investigation. There is no timeline for when that review will happen.

— with files from Mélanie Ritchot

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(17) Comments:

  1. Posted by More work on

    I appreciate that the GN will undergo a third party review, but is the mayor of transparency also giving the go ahead for the city to undergo one? Thank you nunatsiaq news for being he the only source of information throughout the entire ordeal. The water may be drinkable and the mayor has been patting his own back for a job well done but there are still More questions regarding the response and the neat and tidy timeline by the city omits some important facts.

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    • Posted by Ohhh Mercy on

      “Thank you nunatsiaq news for being he the only source of information throughout the entire ordeal” – Story totally based on reports released by the City

      “mayor of transparency” – yes….you mean the guy that actually told us to stop consuming water when the GN was busy wringing its hands sorting out how they were going to make the announcement?

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      • Posted by Hand wringing? on

        That’s a funny way to describe due diligence, gathering information so as to be as informed informed as possible, not causing undue panic, and communicating (in all languages) so that those of us who can’t be asked to follow the twitter feeds of mayor and council can actually get information.
        Right, hand wringing.

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      • Posted by No mercy on

        After he told us that there was absolutely no fuel in the water on Facebook just days before the discovery. That’s missing from his nice little diagram and hasn’t had the decency to address his mistake since.

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  2. Posted by Inuit leaders on

    More Inuit leaders need to step up to be mayor for the next election. Lack of choice has been an issue here .

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    • Posted by iWonder on

      What is it that makes you think that Inuit leadership would be inherently better? Of course there might be good Inuit leaders, but how is it that being Inuk is the quality you think will ensure this (as opposed to not being an Inuk)?

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      • Posted by Wonder no more on

        Will first thing it wouldn’t have to be as complicated as it’s aways seems to be made. More straightforward and direct.
        I can never understand how common sense can lack so much and things that should be straightforward can be made more complicated than it should be.

    • Posted by Step on Up! on

      More leaders in general – don’t care if they are Inuit Iqaluimmiut or some the other type of Iqaluimmiut, as long as they have leadership skills and care for our city.

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    • Posted by Cold island bear on

      W need more of our own people leading our own people. The only people that question this are the white people who think they smarter tha aĺ inuit put together like all white people attitudes in the north.

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      • Posted by iWonder on

        Cold island bear, I’m interested in what you and the OP are thinking on this. Let’s do some counterfactual history?

        Would the Iqaluit water crisis have been handled better if an Inuk was Mayor? If so, what is it about ‘Inuit leadership’ that might have made the difference in your opinion?

        Or, perhaps you aren’t suggesting it would have been better at all, only that you would prefer Inuit leadership because that makes you more comfortable?

        Would do you say?

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        • Posted by Anyone else on

          The one thing that seems to be a common opinion is anyone other than mayor bell would suffice.

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        • Posted by Inuit leadership on

          Inuit land needs more Inuit leaders. I’d rather spend more time training and supporting Inuit imperfect leaders than qallunaat imperfect pretentious leaders who want to fulfill their need of power and fame

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      • Posted by Uh-huh on

        The premier and every member of cabinet except one are Inuit. As it happens, every member of the legislature except John Main is an Inuk. Since 1999, there have been 85 different MLAs, 74 of them Inuit, including every premier of Nunavut.

        Every MP elected in Nunavut since 1979 has been an Inuk.

        Of the 25 municipalities, 21 of them have an Inuk mayor.

        NPC has an Inuk chair and 7 of 8 of the commissioners are Inuit. The Chair of the Water Board is among the 4 of the 5 members who are Inuit. NIRB has 1 non-Inuk out of 9 on the board (and she’s not the chair, who is Inuk). The Wildlife Management Board has 6 of the 8 current members being Inuit.

        The Inuit orgs are entirely led by Inuit, obviously.

        So, yeah.

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        • Posted by Oh ok on

          Yes political leaders, what we lack is administrative leaders, 95% of the top jobs are filled by non Inuit, the work that needs to be carried out by direction from the political leaders fall on these directors and managers.

    • Posted by More choice on

      Inuit or not there has been a lack of choice for Iqaluit municipal elections.

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  3. Posted by Tulugak on

    “Homeowners, especially, would be familiar with a similar type of vapour intrusion, as it’s how radon gets into basements.”

    Because so many of our homes in Nunavut have basements… *eyeroll*

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  4. Posted by Confused Iqalumiut on

    At one point CPHO stated that drinking that contaminated water for 10 days (since it was first detected until no drinking order was put in place) was no big deal and would not have harmful effects since it was for a short period of time.
    I’m no Dr., but my common sense can’t reconcile that statement with the following two question I keep asking myself:
    1) Based on the above report and the process of contamination, doesn’t it mean that contamination has been going for way longer than the 10 day period CPHO talked about? It’s just that we didn’t detect it with our senses until it was 1.3 million times more than the safe level.
    2) Which leads me to my next question. If 1.3 million times more than safe amount of hydrocarbons is found in drinking water, how can that be safe and not a big deal?

    Maybe another explanation like I’m 5 would work.

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