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’s water treatment plant. Former deputy chief public health officer Dr. Anne Huang said the city put too much faith in clean test results from improperly packaged water samples. (File photo by David Venn)

By David Venn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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.

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(15) Comments:

  1. Posted by iThink on

    Diagnosis: Wishful thinking

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  2. Posted by Let’s Go Brandon on

    More gray hair for Kenny, can’t keep hiding under the carpet Mayor Bell, time to answer some questions, Mayor Bell and Amy need to resign now. Getting uglier every week.
    Thanks Nunatsiaq News for digging up dirt caused by Mayor Bell and his anger management administration.

    Let’s Go Kenny!!

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  3. Posted by Why is Council Silent? on

    “A council is responsible for: b) making sure that the powers, duties and functions of the municipal corporation are appropriately carried out” Cities, Towns and Villages Act.

    Why is council so quiet on this? In the council meetings since the water crisis, and the emergency meetings they are not asking administration any questions just approving to extend the emergency. Council is supposed to represent the public and hold administration accountable to the community. Please councilors its is your fiduciary duty to ask questions not just in-camera sessions but for all the public. This is not to lay blame or point fingers, but we should not need to read the newspaper and ATIP reports to know what is going on. Please ask administration questions on our behalf in regular session as well elected you to do so.

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  4. Posted by John K on

    Embarrassing!

    Heads have metaphorically rolled for far, FAR less than this.

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  5. Posted by nilty on

    So they didn’t renew her contract. Who did they have waiting in the wings to fill that super-crucial position? My guess is no one. She didn’t resign or turn down a contract renewal. She is highly qualified. And she is the one person who knew and said what they were doing was wrong.

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  6. Posted by Mayor Ding-A-Ling on

    “The water’s fine!”

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  7. Posted by Kenny smells on

    Fake news!

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  8. Posted by River Rat on

    City: “not available for comment” “not available for comment” “not available for comment”

    Thank you, Dr. Huang for coming forward and shedding more light on the communications mismanagement on the part of the City of Iqaluit. However, your comments raise more questions than they answer. The growing calls for a public inquiry are not going away. The citizens of Iqaluit deserve no less.

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  9. Posted by Aputi on

    Ban Kenny and Amy from iqaluit for putting you guys at risk

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  10. Posted by Bubba on

    when bubba takes meet from dogs they bite the hand dont take meat from eating dogh

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  11. Posted by Aqqaqa on

    Are we at all surprised at the shortcomings of the GN? A government is only as good as it’s employees. If you work for the GN, just look around you – those working under you and your superiors and maybe even yourself – how many are actually qualified to do their job and could competitive in the job market outside of Nunavut? This is what happens, can’t blame Ottawa for everything.

    Good on this doctor for blowing the whistle but, I suspect no good deed goes unpunished.

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  12. Posted by Uh oh on

    I have heard from rather reliable sources that capacity issues with the GN is reaching critical mass. I have also heard that other jurisdictions in Canada are quite aware of this. Apparently this could also be true of the City’s Council and administration, given Dr. Huang’s revelatory story here.

    • Posted by naxy on

      Apologies for my ignorance, but what does “capacity issues” mean?

      No snark or sarcasm intended. Actually asking.

  13. Posted by Northern Guy on

    Dr. Huang is living proof that speaking truth to power can sometimes be a career limiting move, kudos to her for sticking to her guns.

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  14. Posted by Dr Huang on

    Dr Huang is very very knowledgeable and was a breath of fresh air to the Department of Health as she actually did good work in terms of health analysis and was competent in her role.
    The GN does not value people who are highly intelligent and educated. Most GN managers feel threatened by intelligence and when you are the “lone voice” of reason in the GN, they get rid of you because their uneducated insecure egos cannot handle it. Dr Huang , you are better off elsewhere were good work is valued. Thanks for your contribution.

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