Gas smell in water remained a mystery for days: Iqaluit mayor

Investigations point to problems in city’s water treatment plant

On Tuesday, city staff opened a sealed access vault at the water treatment plant that holds water-treatment chemicals. When they opened it, they smelled petroleum coming from the vault, Mayor Kenny Bell said. (File photo)

By David Venn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

City officials searched but could not find the source of a fuel odour reported in Iqaluit’s water supply for more than a week, despite taking several samples and inspecting the city’s water treatment plant, says Mayor Kenny Bell.

City of Iqaluit staff first started hearing complaints on Oct. 2. Staff looked at the regular daily, weekly and monthly tests and the results were clean and met national standards, Bell said.

But the complaints kept coming.

In response, staff collected six samples from various people’s homes across the city and they all came back clean, Bell said. At some of the homes, people said they smelled an odour, but their neighbours reported their own water smelled clean.

“It was so sporadic,” Bell said of the reports.

Staff continued to monitor and test the water and check the water treatment facility located near Lake Geraldine, he said.

When asked why the city didn’t issue water advisory after the initial complaints, Bell answered that the city and Nunavut government agreed it wasn’t necessary.

“Ultimately, our tests were passing,” he said, adding chlorine and iron reacting to each other can cause fuel-like odours in water.

Bell said the city even checked in with the hospital after hearing reports on social media that people were feeling ill after drinking water.

“There was no uptake of stomach sicknesses, no chemical burns,” he said. “So, what do you do?”

Everything changed on Tuesday, three hours after the city released a second statement that all city water met national standards. That’s when the Nunavut government called Bell into an emergency meeting.

There, he was told public works staff had opened a sealed access vault that contains chemicals that the water mixes with to filter it before it is stored in holding tanks.

“When they opened it, they noticed that there was the smell of petroleum,” he said.

No one knows exactly what is in there, when it got in there or how.

“Once the tests come back, we will know definitively,” he said.

City staff are now trying to bypass those sealed access vaults and treating water in the holding tanks, Bell said.

While that’s happening, Bell said the GN is bringing 80,000 litres of water in jugs and bottles to Iqaluit over the next three days.

When asked how Iqalummiut are supposed to trust the city and the current guidelines for tap water usage after they were told twice that the water was safe to consume, Bell said:

“You can imagine how terrible it is for me. I was out there, trusting the science, telling people that they should be drinking the water. I was drinking the water, my kids were drinking the water, you know, we’re bathing in it.

“I don’t blame people for having that, that non-trust. We are working on fixing that trust and, I mean, this is a major step back.”

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(10) Comments:

  1. Posted by monty sling on

    Look what’s above the water line and pump station…and what behind the hill near the power house? climate change ? petroleum products starting to flow from power house grounds?

  2. Posted by Come on on

    Come on mayor. It was two weeks that you were receiving complaints all the while telling everyone it was safe. This dates back to the beginning of October. Stop trying to save face and admit you messed up…or was it the previous mayor?

  3. Posted by Humanrights on

    Shame on you GN, Bell and City council.
    People have been complaining for over 2 weeks and just now they decided to test the water properly by hiring an engineering firm. How ridiculous and typical?
    First complaints were dismissed. Then they said water was safe. Now, we’re in emergency state! I guess Bell and city councillors finally smelled fuel in their water and decided to do a thorough testing. Also, does this mean we don’t even have capacity to run extensive water tests that we have to outsource?
    Listen to Bell… It’s all ‘I’…
    It’s a basic human right to have access to clean drinkable water. City should be held accountable. They should reimburse everyone for money that had to be spent on purchasing water at the stores at hijacked prices. They should issue an apology for being ignorant and dismissive of public complaints. They should pay for water tanks being cleaned. They should drop water bill for everyone for this month.
    City screwed up and now 8000 people have to figure out how to get clean water, and they have to own up to it.
    And city are trying to avoid this by downplaying the situation.

    Still no word on how this contamination could affect health. What about high risk population, elderly, pregnant women, and kids? Clearly, because they either don’t know or don’t want “to scare” public.

    How do you go from “we tested water it’s safe” to “don’t drink, don’t cook, don’t bathe” in one week? And this made national headlines! Well I’m sure Bell is loving all the attention while doing very little for the community!

    This is just ridiculous.

  4. Posted by Jackie Netser on

    Relax… Things happen, I’m sure the mayor did his best…

  5. Posted by Barb Heming on

    What a mess. The City has caused this issue with a clear failure to check and maintain thier critical infrastructure and Kenny Bell throwing fuel on the fire (no pun intended!) With his alarmist comments while a poorly thought out emergency response plan is roled out that provides residents incorrect information and finally limited window to fill their buckets, barrels, and jugs. These continuing issues higlight the clear inability of the City to operate in any professional, responsible, or reliable manner. Perhaps it time for the GN to provide additional iversight to ensuring the continued health and longjevity of residents. Enough already.

  6. Posted by Yup on

    people need to relax, humans make errors all the time, that’s human nature. things break down all the time, in a weeks time it will be solved. northern and coop must be making a killing in reverse osmosis water ahaha.

  7. Posted by Definite Incompetence on

    “City of Iqaluit staff first started hearing complaints on Oct. 2. Staff looked at the regular daily, weekly and monthly tests and the results were clean and met national standards, Bell said.”
    Meanwhile, the National Post article notes, “Siciliano says Iqaluit’s regular water testing looks for bacteria, not hydrocarbons”.
    So the city got a bunch of complaints about a gas smell in the water and dismissed them because their tests, which don’t test for the presence of gas, were coming back fine. Good job.

    • Posted by Lol on

      Yup. At my old workplace we needed to submit water for testing to Public Health. And I know they only test for bacteria here. No equipment to test for anything more “complicating”. Certainly no emergency plans.

      Nobody wants to be held accountable and that’s the sad reality up here. Meanwhile, people rely on government and get cheated left, right and centre.

  8. Posted by Wandalaa on


  9. Posted by Thomas Falls on

    Winter 1987 I was on a military exercise in Iqualuit. I met both the water plant operator and the power plant operator. At the time, the power plant drew cooling water from the lake for the diesel generators and returned warmer water to the lake. The warmer water kept the lake from freezing around the water plant intake.

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