Iqaluit water crisis, 1 year later: Still no word on third-party review of way it was handled

Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell says he’s been told GN wants internal review; Main, Joanasie, Patterson all decline interview requests

There’s been no movement on a third-party review for how the Government of Nunavut and City of Iqaluit handled last fall’s water crisis. (File photo by David Venn)

By David Venn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

One year after the City of Iqaluit declared a water crisis that went on for two months, Nunavut’s Health Department still hasn’t initiated a third-party review of the way it was handled.

And its leaders won’t explain why.

Iqaluit issued its declaration Oct. 12, 2021, after learning from the Government of Nunavut that the city’s water supply had most likely been contaminated with fuel.

In the following weeks, test results from southern labs revealed chemicals consistent with diesel and kerosene were found in the water at the city’s treatment plant.

During the two months of the water crisis, the City of Iqaluit established water distribution centres, bottled water was shipped in by the thousands and the military sent up a team to set up a water purification system.

The territory’s chief public health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson, said in December that the departments of Health and Community and Government Services would be reviewed on their response to the crisis.

However, Health Department spokesperson Danarae Sommerville said the department has no update on a third-party review, and hasn’t clarified if there’s been an internal review.

Patterson and Health Minister John Main, as well as Community and Government Services Minister David Joanasie, all declined interview requests.

“It’s been so long. There’s been absolutely zero movement,” said Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell, of any sort of review that would involve the city.

Bell said he and the city want an independent, third-party review and that Main told him last year that his department would be interested in it as well.

Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell said he and the city want a third-party review, but have not heard from the Nunavut government on when or if that will happen. (Photo by David Venn)

However, Bell said the last time he spoke about it with Health Department representatives, he was told they wanted to do an internal review, to which the city declined to participate.

“We have zero say over what the Government of Nunavut does — this is the problem,” he said in an interview. “We can’t start something and hold the GN accountable.”

A review is important because it’s a learning opportunity for different levels of government to better understand how to respond to the next emergency situation, Bell said.

It’s also important because the public doesn’t know everything that happened, he added.

“Do I think we did anything bad? I don’t know, and I don’t think the public knows,” Bell said. “The public needs to know what happened and how we handled it.”

The more time that passes, the harder it will be for a review to be accurate, he said.

For example, Iqaluit chief administrative officer Amy Elgersma, who played a key role in the city’s response to the emergency, will work her final day for the city on Nov. 11, Bell said.

“I don’t know why people in elected or in high government positions wouldn’t want to know how we did,” he said. “To me, that is telling.”

Asked if the city could initiate its own third-party review without the GN, Bell said that wouldn’t provide a complete picture of the response.

“We want to be open, we want to tell the public what we did, but it’s hard to tell a one-sided story when there was many moving parts,” he said.

In an email, Sommerville said it’s not only up to the GN to complete the review.

“The third-party review is to focus on the management of the Iqaluit water emergency and is planned as a joint initiative with the City of Iqaluit,” she said.

Other commitments and recommendations

In a memo dated Nov. 25, 2021, consultants from Wood Environment and Infrastructure Solutions, hired by the GN, made a list of recommendations for Qulliq Energy Corp. and the city to complete.

The recommendations were categorized by priority level: Immediately, to be finished before the GN lifted the do-not-consume water advisory; short term, to be finished within three months of the GN lifting the advisory; and long term, to be completed during the 2022 construction season.

QEC completed its tasks, which were to review and upgrade its procedures for handling oil and gas drums and to share with the city its protocol to warn workers at the treatment plant of a spill should one occur, said president Rick Hunt in an email.

The city completed one of three short-term items — creating a new document that explains how tanks at the water treatment plant work within the system.

The other two are in progress — removing a black tar-like substance from and cleaning the North and South Clear Well, and building a barrier around a boiler to protect from spills, said City of Iqaluit spokesperson Aleksey Cameron.

As for the long-term recommendations, the city completed designs for a boiler fuel tank [to store fuel used to provide heat] in the water treatment plant, but construction was pushed to 2023 because of supply-chain problems, Cameron said.

CGS spokesperson Suleikha Duale said the department is receiving updates from the city through meetings and via email on which tasks are completed.

Cameron said the city is still using a bypass system, but hopes the treatment plant will be in operation by the end of the year.


Timeline of the water crisis

Oct. 2: Residents begin complaining on social media about a fuel smell in their water.

On two occasions, the City of Iqaluit responds saying nothing was wrong with the water and that the smell could be caused by chemicals used to disinfect the water.

Oct. 12: The Government of Nunavut issues a do-not-consume water advisory after finding an underground water tank at Iqaluit’s water treatment plant contaminated with fuel.

Three days later, the GN confirms it with water tests that show diesel and kerosene had made its way into the water.

The GN maintains there are no long-term health effects from the contamination because it never made it into the distribution system.

Dec. 10: The GN lifts its do-not-consumer advisory.


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(6) Comments:

  1. Posted by I live in the Arctic on

    “Do I think we did anything bad? I don’t know, and I don’t think the public knows,” then throwing Amy under the bus wow, this guy sounds just like trump, take responsibility.

    • Posted by Pain In The Groen on

      How exactly is he throwing her under the bus? Mayor Bell is simply stating that she is done working for the city on November 11th. Since a third party inquiry or investigation of any kind is nowhere near happening, she will be gone by the time one happens. In the event of an inquiry, having her present to answer questions as the CAO at the time of the event is crucial. As is with the mayor, council and all relevant senior administrators at the city. Of course there will have to be representatives from all levels of government as they all had a role to play in this.

      Let’s hope Amy can at least appear by video when she is needed to answer questions. Good for Bell for wanting an independent inquiry and asking the questions did we do things wrong, right, etc.

      • Posted by Ol Kenny on

        “Do I think we did anything bad”
        Come on, hiding the fact they didnt tell anyone for weeks there as fuel in water-BAD
        Lying about it telling people its safe to drink-BAD
        Telling everyone its ok to drink when they knew it wasnt-BAD
        Overall Kenny is bad for the city and bad for the people of Iqaluit

    • Posted by Riding the Bus on

      As much as I don’t like Kenny, I don’t think he was throwing her under the bus. I think he was just saying that the longer an investigation is delayed, the less likely it is to find the information they need to find. And he used Amy as an example, as she was very involved in the response and that she will be leaving the city.

  2. Posted by UpHere on

    The concept of a third party review is pointless. The GN is already short staffed as is Iqaluit. The CAO is leaving and does not need to respond to any review after employment. Who would conduct such a review? There are very few engineering firms capable of Arctic work and expertise, and fewer still with any background knowledge of these types of water systems. Those that do have experience are probably already part of the assessment. The city has almost no senior staff remaining due to recruitment problems and the lousy pension and housing. There are no legal or “consulting” firms that carry out third party reviews combining management of water systems, with engineering and public policy.

    You either have the qualified staff or you don’t. You either know what’s legacy environmental contamination or you don’t. No need to waste any more money on non-existent third party reviews when the real issue is that Iqaluit needs to get its administration properly staffed. Money and time would be better spent on getting positions filled both in the GN and city and moving forward with a risk management strategy for all infrastructure.

    • Posted by Politics on

      The issue remains, if there is no third party review there is no one for the mayor to blame especially with an election year coming up. He wants to try to clean up his image as much as possible from all the damage done over the last three years. This is politics.


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