Iqaluit officials said water that smelled of fuel was safe before testing for hydrocarbons

City testing focuses on disinfection, chlorine levels and pH levels, says city administrative officer

The City of Iqaluit published two statements saying that its water supply met national standards before it found an underground tank that smelled of fuel. (File photo)

By David Venn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Iqaluit city officials assured people the city’s treated water was safe to drink before testing for the contaminant people said they could smell coming out of their taps.

Reports that the water smelled of fuel began surfacing on Oct. 2. On Oct. 4, the city issued a notice saying the city tests its drinking water daily and all reports were satisfactory.

But the city does not test daily for hydrocarbons, chief administrative officer Amy Elgersma said during an Oct. 15 news conference confirming the presence of fuel in the water — most likely diesel or kerosene.

“The city’s daily tests focus on disinfection and chlorine levels, pH levels, temperatures, and so on. So those tests were not catching hydrocarbons,” she said.

After the initial complaints started popping up, the city sent samples to a southern lab to test for hydrocarbons.

The samples were sent out on Oct. 4 and came back negative, said Elgersma. She said this is likely because the investigation team did not have proper test kits and the samples had lost potency during travel.

Public officials made the call to warn the public the city’s treated water was suspected to be contaminated with hydrocarbons on Oct. 12 after a worker detected a strong fuel smell coming from a sealed tank at the city’s water treatment plant, which is located next to the city’s diesel power plant.

This was hours after the city issued a second notice assuring the public its treated water was safe to drink and meeting national standards.

When asked why city officials didn’t issue a water advisory after the initial complaints started coming in, considering the fact city testing doesn’t have the capacity to test for hydrocarbons, Elgersma said “we didn’t know that there were hydrocarbons in the water.”

“People were smelling different things. It wasn’t consistent,” she said at the Oct. 15 news conference.

Elgersma has been leading the investigation into the city’s water supply with the help of Nunavut’s Department of Health, which got involved on Oct. 3.

She’s taken on added responsibility within Iqaluit’s public works department because the city has been without a director of public works for the past 15 months.

Both Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell and Elgersma have said this vacancy has not impacted the city’s investigation into its water supply.

City officials say they believe fuel got into the water supply from ground contamination through a cracked underground water tank. The tank has since been drained and bypassed, and city workers have begun flushing the city’s water system.

Officials say Iqaluit’s water will continue to be tested regularly for hydrocarbons in the months to come.

There will be a site investigation around the water treatment plant looking for hydrocarbon contamination as well.

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(20) Comments:

  1. Posted by Pain In The Groen on

    Even Toucan Sam knows to follow your nose. It always knows!

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  2. Posted by no question on

    ““People were smelling different things. It wasn’t consistent,” .

    That is not true. Literally everyone who complained about the smell said it smelled like diesel, or heating fuel. Everyone. And the city led them to believe that tests came back with satisfactory results. The results were satisfactory, but they didn’t test (properly) for the very thing people were smelling.

    This isn’t going away.

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    • Posted by Gaslighting us, he? on

      Smell of fuel, smell of gasoline, smell of kerosene, smell of diesel, smell like oil.. not consistent? The consistent message is that the smell was from petroleum product… at least it is being looked into..

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  3. Posted by Northern Inuit on

    if it smells like cologne leave it alone.

    anyone knows that if your water smells that bad, you are not going to drink it. if they keep telling us over and over, maybe we will start to believe them. but trust me, I seriously doubt that. that dog won’t hunt.

    enough fingers being pointed won’t let people lose sight of the problem at hand. despite all of the water tests being completed, did anyone from the City of Iqaluit actually go to people houses or businesses to investigate the smell?

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  4. Posted by Pants on fire on

    The mayor repeatedly assured residents that there were no hydrocarbons specially in the water when the city wasn’t even testing for hydrocarbons. They can deflect all they want but at the end of the day the mayor was negligent in his messaging and owes the residents an apology. Fess up!

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  5. Posted by Transparency on

    There needs to be an independent investigation…now!

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  6. Posted by Time for CAO to resign! on

    When will people start to be held accountable in this place?!

    The City, despite DOZENS of people complaining that the water smelled of FUEL (just check the initial Facebook post on IqaluitPSA), told people the water was fine despite never testing for hydrocarbons.

    In fact, Amy Elgersma on that very same Facebook post said “The City has investigated this concern and has not found anything that would suggest that there is anything wrong with the water.”

    The post complained of “fuel, or oil and we’ve been having slight stomach issues for a couple of days.” Amy’s assertion that “the City investigated this concern” implies that they checked for “fuel or oil.”

    In fact, they did not. (Also, bet you anything her comment gets deleted once they see this. But no worries, there are screenshots).

    Yet Amy, and the Mayor, said the water was fine, despite never checking for it. They should have said “we don’t know, yet.” Or at least let people know that they didn’t have the ability to test for it right away.

    People got sick. Parents mixed infant formula with it. Because the City, and both its employed and elected officials, said it was safe. They lied.

    Time to start holding people accountable.

    Resign, Amy.

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  7. Posted by Enhanced Incompetence on

    When the water tastes like fuel, you have fuel in it. I’ve been to multiple first nations that have undrinkable water from fuel contamination, and believe me, even if you can’t smell it, if you accidentally take a swig of it (out of habit when you’re new to a community), it tastes like fuel. The human nose and tastebuds are a very good detector, and then you back it up with lab tests for more specific information.

    This is gross incompetence that led them to declare the water safe when multiple people were reporting the fuel smell and taste! It could actually be criminal. The contamination itself is almost certainly incompetence at play, will there ever be an answer as to how that happened? On the first nations it’s usually obvious, a spill from an unmaintained and leaking tank, or vehicles abandoned in the water or watershed that contaminated ground water. Here it sounds like it happened at the plant itself, and it is incredible that the contamination wasn’t reported at the time it happened, someone almost certainly knew about it.

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  8. Posted by Qavvigarjuk on

    Yes, obviously incompetent people not knowing what type of tests they do everyday. If people say it smells like fuel, then it should have been tested
    with the proper test and protocols right away. The nose is the best detector! Testing for Hydrocarbons should always be tested everyday. You never know when it may enter the system. Benzene in diesel is a carcinogen. Not good at all exposing people especially infants to this contaminated water for days! Infants should be tested at the very least. People should be held accountable for this mess; for poor decisions and actions.

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  9. Posted by the keebler man on

    and they really expect us to trust our city officials? They have lost our trust. Independent investigation please!

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  10. Posted by Thank you fellow citizens on

    I have to say I am very very grateful to the citizens who brought the issue up and did not give up. It is thanks to them that something is being done about it. This is the second major drinking water issue that has come up in 3 years, the previous one being the low water level in the reservoir, an issue that was also only addressed because citizens raised concerns. Where are the ongoing checks into the system, where is the ongoing monitoring for basic infrastructure? 3-5 years, 2 mayors, 2 CAOs, 2 emergency drinking water issues addressed only because citizens feared for their water security and health and because they had the courage and took the time and put the energy into raising the issues. We need to deal with the emergency situation and then investigate how the problem arose. Getting a slew of federal $ is not enough. Blaming insufficient housing to secure a public works director is not enough; that is a pretty significant role in a city the size of Iqaluit, find a way, contract someone and get them to come up here regularly until there is a place they can buy or until they decide to move on as so many people do after 2 years anyway, whether you provide housing to them or not. Easy to say, I know, but where there is a will, there is a way.

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  11. Posted by Rick on

    Iqaluit needs to watershed its incompetence starting with Mayor Bell and the CAO.

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  12. Posted by Dave Jacobson on

    I am surprised the city didn’t send the water samples away for fuel / hydrocarbon testing off the bat. Yes, some people may have been complaining about in on Facebook and NOT calling the city to report it, but the city still had a responsibility to investigate it thoroughly. Just as if someone posted on Facebook about someone being beaten up at a house, and the police see the post, they have a responsibility to investigate it. Saying that because they didn’t follow the proper procedure in reporting the issue is a way for the city to avoid responsibility. There needs to be a serious review of city procedures after this debacle.

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  13. Posted by Time to say Goodbye! on

    The City has been in serious decline since the irresponsible Mayor and his trusty (but totally unqualified) sidekick CAO have been at the helm. Time to pack your boxes and dont let the door his you on the way out.

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  14. Posted by Inuujunga on

    It WAS consistent messaging from the community.
    Why is Amy deflecting, and avoiding accountability?
    I don’t think that I will trust the City again.

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  15. Posted by Calling Foul on

    Granted that mistakes have been made (especially in the initial tweets). However, that the city was doing special tests for hydrocarbons two days after first reports of people smelling fuel and continued to do so after initial test came back negative shows that the administration was being (shockingly) responsive to people’s concerns. Faulting the city of negligence for communicating the results of those tests for that initial period is overblown.

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    • Posted by report on

      Nope. The city initially tested for bacterial contamination. Then, when they did do the test for hydrocarbons, they didn’t even know how to properly collect the sample, so the test was useless. And they knew that. At the time they said all tests results were satisfactory and meets national standards, there had not been a test for hydrocarbons that had been carried out properly.

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  16. Posted by I live in the Arctic on

    Care to report what symptoms hydrocarbon poisoning should people be looking for?

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