Former deputy CPHO says she was ‘lone voice’ warning against water test results
Dr. Anne Huang says Iqaluit officials put too much faith in initial false negative results during early fuel investigation
Iqaluit city officials relied too much on an initial set of negative test results at the beginning of their investigation into the city’s water supply, says Nunavut’s former deputy chief public health officer, Dr. Anne Huang. It ended up influencing how decisions were made before the public was warned the water might not be safe, she added.
Huang described herself as “the lone voice” in early October calling for caution in the interpretation of early results that indicated the city’s drinking water was what the city called “satisfactory.”
The city sent water samples to a southern lab on Oct. 4, after people began reporting two days earlier that their tap water smelled of fuel. The results, which came back Oct. 7, did not detect fuel in the water.
But those samples were not stored in proper containers, and therefore, shouldn’t have caused speculation that everything was OK, said Huang, who no longer works for the Government of Nunavut.
“Everyone was under the impression that that set of negative results were somewhat trustworthy still,” Huang said in an interview.
As deputy chief public health officer, Huang was in charge of public health’s investigation into the fuel smell in Iqaluit’s water supply in early October.
Huang joined the Health Department as deputy chief public health officer on April 5, she said. Her employment ended Oct. 18 — the Monday after the City of Iqaluit and Government of Nunavut held a joint Friday-evening news conference to announce the confirmation of fuel contamination in the water. Health Department spokesperson Danarae Sommerville said Huang’s contract had ended and the deputy position is currently vacant.
Huang declined to comment on the circumstances of her departure.
She did offer her perspective of the initial days of the fuel investigation, saying communication with the City of Iqaluit was difficult.
On Oct. 4, she said, city officials published a public service announcement saying tests showed the drinking water was safe without her approval.
Huang called that announcement “misleading” because the tests the city referred to did not include results for the presence of fuel.
“That wouldn’t necessarily validate or refute the concerns of fuel in the drinking water,” she said.
The city’s chief administrative officer, Amy Elgersma, could not be reached for comment about Huang’s account of what happened between the time people reported smelling fuel in their tap water and the Government of Nunavut advised Iqalummiut not to drink the water.
On Oct. 8, a Department of Health environmental officer inspecting the water treatment plant reported the “unbearable” smell of diesel was so strong in parts of the facility that he had to leave for fresh air. He recommended the city investigate a possible link between the smell at the water treatment plant and the reported smell of fuel in the water.
Huang said the initial set of false negative results influenced the way officials responded to that report at the time.
In an interview this week, chief public health officer Dr. Michael Patterson said there was maintenance work going on in the building that could have contributed to the diesel smell.
Elgersma could not be reached for comment about the maintenance work that took place in the city-owned water treatment plant.
Huang had the authority, under the Public Health Act, to issue a do-not-consume advisory for Iqaluit’s water early on in the investigation, because Patterson was busy working on an outbreak of COVID-19 in Coral Harbour.
She said she declined to do it at the time because she felt there wasn’t enough hard evidence to do so, even with the reported odour in the water and smell detected at the water treatment plant.
Patterson ended up issuing that advisory on Oct. 12, after a worker discovered a strong smell of petroleum in one of the tanks at the plant. People in Iqaluit haven’t been able to consume water from their taps since.
Patterson says there will be a review of the government’s conduct throughout the water emergency to learn lessons on how to handle a similar situation in the future.