Two unidentified Iqaluit residents fill water jugs at the river near the Road to Nowhere Tuesday night. City council declared a state of emergency Tuesday after test indicated some type of petroleum product had contaminated the municipal water supply. (Photo by Mélanie Ritchot)

Iqaluit declares emergency as petroleum suspected in water supply

Mayor, Nunavut government tell residents not to drink tap water

By David Venn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Updated at 8 p.m.

Iqaluit city council has declared a state of local emergency because some type of petroleum may have contaminated the city’s water supply.

The city’s senior administrative officer, Amy Elgersma, announced this during an emergency council meeting Tuesday.

There is no information on how the petroleum may have entered the water supply or when it happened.

“We suspect that there is petroleum — some type of petroleum product — that has entered the water system,” Elgersma said.

The city will receive results from samples in five to six business days, she said.

At its peak, council’s emergency meeting at 5:45 p.m. had 400 viewers on its Facebook livestream. Council met behind closed doors for about 30 minutes before Elgersma delivered the statement. Councillors are permitted to meet privately to discuss some specific topics but any decision they make must be reported publicly.

To help residents get water, Elgersma said the city had two water depots open until 9 p.m. Tuesday — beside the library and Arctic Winter Games arena — where the city was distributing water from the Sylvia Grinnell River. Residents are required to bring their own jugs to be filled.

She said that no one should consume the city’s tap water.

The city set up a “drinking water hotline” at 867-979-5603 for Iqalummiut who have questions for the city during business hours.

Nunavut’s Department of Health issued a similar warning later Tuesday, specifying that no water should be used for drinking or cooking “due to the possibility of petroleum hydrocarbons” in the water supply.

“Pregnant women, newborns and infants should not take baths or be bathed in tap water. Do not use tap water to mix infant formula,” states a news release. The water remains safe for laundry, cleaning and showers, it said.

Earlier on Tuesday, Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell warned residents not to drink the city’s tap water after workers noticed a “strong smell of gas” in the water at Iqaluit’s plant.

All residents, whether they receive water through pipes or trucked service, are affected, he said.

“It’s everything. Any treated water,” he said.

In early October, some Iqaluit residents posted on Facebook that their tap water smelled like gasoline.

The city initially said that its daily water tests came back “satisfactory” and suggested that chlorine might have been the cause of the odour.

Bell said he spoke Tuesday with Canadian North airlines to ensure that the city will have cargo space available to send water samples to an Ottawa laboratory.

Correction: This story has been updated to correctly state how officials have determined a possible contamination in Iqaluit’s water on Tuesday.

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(52) Comments:

  1. Posted by Water is Life on

    Imagine living under boil water advisories for year after year. Indigenous people in the south have been living with sub-standard water for days, weeks, months, years.

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    • Posted by Fuel contamination is preventable on

      On many reserves where the water is contaminated and undrinkable, it’s for exactly this same reason, fuel contamination. On reserves to the south of Nunavut, the fuel tanks were not maintained and leaked, and contaminated the ground water. Or, sometimes abandoned vehicles like skidoos are left on the lakes when they melt in the spring. It’s totally preventable for the most part, and it’s not the fault of outside governments when it happens, it’s the local band council or hamlet council that doesn’t enforce basic environmental safety, which ends up in the water supply being contaminated, sometimes indefinitely. Yet somehow it’s always those darned feds who leave indigenous people to suffer.

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      • Posted by Tom Durham on

        I agree totally. The only source of gas is the residents .

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  2. Posted by John K on

    So just don’t drink water …

    Can we boil the water? Can we filter it? Is there going to be any left at the stores after 5?

    What a “northern moment”…

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    • Posted by KM on

      Boiling is for biological contamination. For chemical contamination, it won’t do anything to improve the water, and will just end up spreading contamination through the house.

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    • Posted by Cindy Leishman on

      No, boiled or filtered does not remove the fuel. You have to buy bottled or go to the river. There are also 2 stations where you can get river water with your own jugs

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    • Posted by Red Herring on

      Thank goodness the city can address multiple issues within a given time frame.

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  3. Posted by i see colors on

    what are the long term health effects for us who have been drinking this water for weeks? do we got the kidney or brain damage?

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    • Posted by FUD spreader on

      Judging from the comments across social media – it’s brain damage. Lots of brain damage is the obvious conclusion. Side effects consist of – inability to read press releases and updates; rage posting across all social media; jumping to unsubstantiated and dire conclusions; lack of all common sense. Thoughts & Prayers

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      • Posted by Par for the course on

        It is possible, but if I had to wager I would bet that somewhere along the line it comes down to incompetence.

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  4. Posted by Monica Connolly on

    Iqaluit had a similar problem in the late summer once or twice back in the 70s or early 80s. As far as I can remember, chlorine was reacting with some contaminant in the water to create the smell. Can anyone remember more details?

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    • Posted by She doesn’t even go here! on

      You’ve also mentioned iron-eating bacteria and how it produces a diesel-like smell. The city tested for that already and it came back clean. Iron-eating bacteria was eliminated as a possibility already, and Bell acknowledged that in comments he made on social media. What they didn’t test for is hydrocarbons, because they don’t have those tests available here. And that is why the city has concluded it is likely a petroleum product that is the problem. Please stop telling everyone not to jump to conclusions. A state of emergency has been declared by two levels of government because they believe the water is contaminated with hydrocarbons. It isn’t the media or social media commenters drawing their own conclusions.

  5. Posted by L’ill Bill on

    I guess Northmart staff will be staying late to mark up the prices on bottled water.

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  6. Posted by Wow on

    Guess the mayor shouldn’t have been calming telling everyone that the water was ok. Lesson learned…Better safe than sorry, someone more qualified needs to run in the next election.

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    • Posted by Rational Logic on

      The mayor, similar to the rest of us, makes decisions based on the information at hand.

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      • Posted by Nunavummiut deserves better leader! on

        If that’s the case then the Mayor should not speak until he has ALL the information and tests COMPLETE. I heard he was saying how safe the water was and family was drinking and having a jolly time with it and tests were not even complete!. Just irresponsible. Petroleum? I mean, WOW! Just WOW!

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  7. Posted by Duh on

    Wait, remove the not from the heading and we have a direct quote from the mayor just yesterday and the day before and before and before…(head smack)

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  8. Posted by Smelly water on

    Could this be related the maintenance done a few weeks ago? Timing is odd

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  9. Posted by Unworship on

    Who’s nonsensical now? Nunatsiaq Anon commenters or your unworship?

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  10. Posted by Hero on

    So did bell save the day or did he allow people to drink contaminated water for 2 weeks ? I know what he’ll say…

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  11. Posted by Iqalu on

    How did they clean the water truck it’s been used for all this duration of contaminated water

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  12. Posted by Curious on

    Was the water treatment facility only checked today? Seems like this should have been the first place to check when people reported smelling fuel in the water 10 days ago!

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  13. Posted by Safety on

    Sucks when the Mayor ignores residents safety concerns. Sounds familiar.

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  14. Posted by Former Insider on

    Five to six business days!
    .
    You can train a good dog to detect most anything in less time than that. Then the dog could do more than 100 tests every day, if needed.
    .
    First, test Lake Geraldine. If the water there is good, then follow down and test water going into the treatment plant. If that’s good, test water coming out of the plant. And so on.
    .
    If Lake Geraldine is contaminated, check the water flowing into it.
    .
    Also check around the lake for tire tracks. Is there an ATV at the bottom of the lake?
    .
    There used to be some divers in Iqaluit. Is anyone in town able to dive and check the lake?
    .
    Really, sit and wait 5 or 6 business days for a lab test?
    .
    The lack of information, more than a week after the smell of hydrogen sulfide was obvious in Iqaluit air, speaks to major incompetance.

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  15. Posted by wow on

    One day and its a state of emergency in Iqaluit, the people of sanikiluaq have not been able to consume the water for years now, not suppose to drink it, cook with it, brush our teeth with it….no state of emergency ever declared, we just have to live with it.

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    • Posted by Inuk guy on

      Yeap, how the mighty have fallen eh? Whale Cove, Baker lake, Sanikiluaq, all have had boil water advisories for years.

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  16. Posted by Lena on

    We need to know Which water source is contaminated : Lake Geraldine? Road to Nowhere River? Is water still being siphoned into Lake Geraldine from the Road to Nowhere River? Was it from the new pipes installed? Was it intentionally contaminated or accidental? Anyone can access the water sources and people walk their dogs around the lake near RTN . How come the Water Treatment facility didn’t detect anything if they do checks a couple times a day or are they not doing regular daily water tests anymore? Is the Sylvia Grinnel river safe? Maybe it should be checked too

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    • Posted by What’s Going On on

      Why so little information?
      What hydrocarbons? At what concentrations?
      Iqaluit has about 8000 residents. Are any of them chemists? What about the high school chemistry teacher? What about the chemistry instructor for Arctic College’s nursing program? These people should be able to do basic testing here in town. Any chemists at Nunavut Research Centre? Isn’t there a food inspector who tests food and facilities for contamination?

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  17. Posted by Concerned Southerner on

    The source of the contamination needs to be found by taking waters samples up stream in the reservoir lakes and in the WT plant after each treatment unit. Samples are being analyzed in Ottawa with rush priority I would hope. Petroleum hydrocarbon tests can be done in 24 hrs but some other tests that they may have ordered like THM take longer. THM will tell them if it is a reaction of chlorine with organic matter in the water. Hope the source will be found quickly so that it can be eliminated!

  18. Posted by DEW line on

    The water they pumped to the lake, is flowing from the old dew line site, wonder if all the hydro carbons are seeping through the membranes from the clean up in the 90s, or they missed some contaminated soil and was too little to detect on a small scale but contaminated our drinking water on a larger scale.

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    • Posted by Concerned Southerner on

      Are you sure about that, DEW Line? The DEW Line stations that I know of are all at a latitude higher than Iqaluit. They are also some of the most intensely monitored remediation sites in the world. Waste cells are inspected and the land around them is tested on a set schedule. It could be from a contaminated site, but not likely a DEW Line site.

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  19. Posted by Iqaluit Taxpayer on

    The big question is why it took the city 10 days to send samples south to be tested? Hundreds of people were making complaints between oct 2 and yesterday and they were basically being told that they are all ‘out to lunch’. At the very least the city, SAO, and Mayor should have sent out a PSA saying that abnormal aromas have been reported in the water in the city and until the city can deem the water 100% safe that it may not be safe to consume. This would have saved many people who were concerned with the water from drinking it for the last 10 days. But instead, we were told that it is safe despite all of the concerns and many of us who trust the authorities were still drinking contaminated water.

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    • Posted by Jean Graey on

      I believe I read that initial tests came back with normal results which is why they said the water was safe, but then they came back as abnormal and they acted on those results. Hopefully, this is problem is localized to one part of the plant and is not contamination of the lake. Hopefully, it can be remediated quickly.

  20. Posted by Give everyone a Berkey on

    They should give everyone a berkey gravity charcoal filter to remove all PCBs from the water

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    • Posted by anon on

      Chemical contamination can’t be removed with water filtration. If that was the case we could still fill our containers at the grocery stores.

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      • Posted by Concerned Southerner on

        Yes hydrocarbons at low concentrations in water can be removed by Activated Carbon filters. I would not rely on that yet, until there is more information on what the contaminant is exactly, and what the concentrations are.

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  21. Posted by qikiqtaalummiu on

    hope everyone is doing fine,safety is priority., there has been muiltiple places people washing their trucks and in near drinking water.this should not happened. there was no report but there was an accident at the area=water dam. the accident caused some trucks to roll over and spilled some fuel to the dam..maybe what should have happened and do it properly take care of it right away instead of two weeks=our mayor left us out in important decission that needed to be made locally.
    Be safe everyone have patients ,things will get better when it comes.

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  22. Posted by Eski Moses on

    Will i have to replace my whole water system at my house including intake pipe, water tank, hot water tank, water pump, all the internal piping, washer, dish washer, bathroom plumbing, kitchen plumbing, sewage tank & piping? Will the city if i have to?

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    • Posted by Concerned Southerner on

      Good question and it depends on the concentrations of the hydrocarbons in water that went through your system. The City likely will ask people to purge their piping by running a lot of water through it once the source of hydrocarbons, (if that is what it is), has been found and blocked from entering the system. There could be hydrocarbon residual in micro amounts that will still give you an odour after a purge. The human nose can detect very minor amounts of HC. The little aerator on your taps might need to be replaced once the source is gone. A carbon activated filter like a Brita might give peace of mind too.

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  23. Posted by boris pasternak on

    Hey Inuit, Silvia Grinnell River is good as any river….pack your ATVs.

  24. Posted by Community Guy on

    I used to hire the hockey team or Jr. Rangers to clean my water tank or shovel my stairs. It helps them fund-raise for their next trip or new jerseys.

  25. Posted by John W Paul Murphy on

    Will you get a credit on your next bill for the lost water, the inconvenience, the cleanup of your in-house equipment? All follow-up questions once they find the source and correct that.

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    • Posted by nos on

      They said maybe for the water bill, no to paying to clean our tanks. Interesting, since the service we paid for was for potable drinking water to be deposited into our tanks. They deposited poison water instead. It wasn’t intentional, I’m sure, but they put something in there that I didn’t agree to. Why aren’t they looking after the cleanup?

  26. Posted by Immuk on

    When you think of it, fuel or any petroleum products do not mix with water. fuel/gas always float to the surface, and water sinks. It should be pretty obvious with a visual inspection.

  27. Posted by Yup on

    i’m just here to watch the arguments made on the comment sections

  28. Posted by Richard Lafrance on

    How difficult is it to send up a scientist & a couple of technicians with a Gas Chromatograph and lots of sample bottles? Sampling and rapid testing will enable them to quickly zero in on the root cause of the issue. Environmental tech surrounds the petrochemical industry for just this purpose… quickly identify the problem so it can be corrected ASAP.

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