Iqaluit’s new hydrocarbon monitoring system ‘unusual’ but ‘proactive,’ expert says

City installed real-time system in response to ongoing water emergency in Iqaluit

In response to the ongoing water emergency in Iqaluit, the s::can water monitoring system was brought in to help detect hydrocarbons in the city’s water supply in October. The city is currently renting the system. (Photo by Mélanie Ritchot)

By Madalyn Howitt

The City of Iqaluit has installed an online system made by engineers in Austria to monitor for hydrocarbons in its treated water.

It’s a move heralded by one expert, although questions remain about who at the city is making sure the new technology is properly maintained and that the massive amounts of data it spits out is fully interpreted.

People in Iqaluit haven’t been able to drink their tap water for almost a month, after fuel was found to be contaminating a holding tank in the city’s water treatment plant.

Along with an investigation and cleanup process, the city has rented a monitoring system manufactured by a company called s::can, Geoffrey Byrne, a spokesperson for the city, confirmed. It was installed Oct. 22.

The system uses light to detect contaminants, says Benoit Barbeau, a professor in the civil mining and geological engineering department at Polytechnique Montréal.

Barbeau specializes in drinking water treatment and is familiar with the s::can system.

“If you have a light going across water, black light will interact with the compounds which are in the water and a portion of the light will be absorbed. It will not go through … the water sample,” he said. “Therefore, the more you absorb, the more there’s [a] presence of different compounds.”

Depending on what wavelength of light is being absorbed, the system can correlate it to the presence of different types of contaminants, he said.

“For example, if you have a contamination with gasoline, the light interference will be different than if it’s diesel [or] if it’s wastewater coming through.… So we can [see] we have a signal that’s abnormal,” he said.

When it comes to diesel, the contaminant suspected to have infiltrated Iqaluit’s water treatment plant last month, that signal would come through well below the threshold set by the federal government’s Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality.

That threshold for diesel, which is is classified as an F2 hydrocarbon, is 390 mg/l.

“We have tested eight companies selling oil sensors in water (including s::can),” said Barbeau. “Diesel was detectable at 0.025-0.05 mg/l … so in short, yes, 390 mg/l would be detected for sure.”

Barbeau said it’s a “big deal” that technology like the one used by the s::can system can analyze water in real time without samples needing to be sent to a lab.

In October, the City of Iqaluit installed the s::can drinking water “micro::station”, which is designed for online monitoring of water quality. It uses light to detect potential contaminants like hydrocarbons in water supplies. (Photo courtesy of s::can GmbH)

While he said it’s unusual for a city to use a real-time monitoring system for its water supply, due in large part to the cost of the system and it being a relatively new product, he thinks the City of Iqaluit made a good choice in bringing it in.

“They were proactive,” he said. “It’s the future of monitoring water treatment.”

However, the city must properly maintain the system and figure out a way to make the most of its technology.

“When you put that system in place, you need someone to take care of it. It’s like a car — you need to put gasoline in it, you need to change a tire, so there’s a cost of operation,” Barbeau said.

“Another challenge is that they generate a lot of data.”

The s::can system will generate not only one measurement, but an entire “absorbance profile” Barbeau explained, a signal measured in real time.

“Every second you have information, so after a year of operation, that’s a lot of information. We need to develop artificial intelligence in order to [monitor] all that information that we’re generating, because it’s overwhelming,” he said.

City staff did not respond to questions from Nunatsiaq News about the cost of renting the system, how long it plans to rent it or who is responsible for maintaining it and interpreting the data it generates.

City council’s Nov. 5 agenda package, however, lists a $29,000 line item described as an s::can rental. It is unclear if this amount includes all costs associated with the system, such as installation, shipping or tutorial fees.

City of Iqaluit chief administrative officer Amy Elgersma told city council on Nov. 2 that the plan is to publish results from the real-time monitoring system on the city’s website on a weekly basis.

She also told council that day that the city had submitted a report to Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut’s chief public health officer, to certify the city’s water quality now meets Canadian health standards. Patterson will be responsible for deciding whether to lift the order to not consume Iqaluit’s drinking water.

It’s not clear whether the s::can hydrocarbon monitoring data is included in the report.

On Nov. 6, the Department of Health announced it hired a third party to review the report. Health officials expect that review to be complete late this week.

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(15) Comments:

  1. Posted by Citizens first on

    I suspect going forward that nunatsiaq news won’t be getting much in the way of comments from the City because of the Mayor’s frustrations with the criticisms about him in the comments section (imagine the mentality). Unfortunately this will only further disrupt the information flow to residents as this is a local newspaper that is relied on by the community as a source of information. It’s unfortunate when a politician ego comes before residents.

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  2. Posted by River Rat on

    I’d assume the waste water treatment plant operator, Pat Wolfe, would manage the data and the maintenance of the new monitoring system.

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    • Posted by Yoda on

      It’s all good to have a position filled but obviously training would be required when there is an entirely new system set up. After the Walkerton Water Tragedy the enquiry concluded that training staff in the irrole managing Municipal water was severely insufficient and almost non-existent. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and that is exactly what training can do as we move forward. So as this monitoring system is very complicated it sounds like staff would require to be properly trained to analyze the system data accurately and make adequate and prudent applications.

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      • Posted by River Rat on

        Fair point but Pat would never let a Walkerton happen here. We have a highly competent water team at the city.

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  3. Posted by Let’s Go Brandon on

    Another day with Kenny leading is another day of no progress.
    Please step down Kenny!

    Let’s Go Kenny!!

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  4. Posted by Higher bills? on

    “While he said it’s unusual for a city to use a real-time monitoring system for its water supply, due in large part to the cost of the system and it being a relatively new product”

    No matter how the city will spin it, the residents of Iqaluit will have to pay extra for this system I bet. Expect all of our bills to increase for the same sh8t service and poor water quality

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  5. Posted by Yup on

    this is turning into quite a drama series, grab the popcorn everybody. comments should start piling in shortly.

  6. Posted by John W Paul Murphy on

    In fairness to Kenny. And, regardless of Brandon’s pre-election efforts to take over, There are a number of other Council members who participate in the decisions made. Yes, the buck stops with him, but pay attention to the words and voting decisions being made by the other members, His position sometimes includes carrying the message of the Council as a whole.

    Also, let us not forget, there is staff in management allegedly qualified in issues such as this who can and do exert influence over the Council.

    My next concern might be if Council decides to send themselves and management to Austria to learn how to operate and maintain this new equipment. LOL

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    • Posted by Let’s Go Brandon on

      Kenny really needs to go.

      Let’s Go Kenny!

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  7. Posted by Spotty Connections on

    Will the notoriously bad and intermittent internet pose a problem if they are recording and processing 24/7? Will there be delays in processing such large data files?

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  8. Posted by Gambling addictions? on

    Is this unusual system another gamble with the lives of 8000+ residents?

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  9. Posted by Canadian Standards Ignored – WHY? on

    According to the update on November 2, the water meets Canadian standards, therefore, please explain why the city and the GN is continuing to drag this out!

    By David Lochead

    Test results show Iqaluit’s water supply meets Canadian drinking water guidelines, but the do-not-drink order remains in effect, chief administrative officer Amy Elgersma said at an emergency city council meeting on Tuesday.

  10. Posted by Who is analyzing the data? on

    So, first they wouldn’t give us any data, and now they’re going to overwhelm us with real time data?

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  11. Posted by John W Paul Murphy on

    Does the expert suggest getting this equipment is “proactive” ??

    Proactive usually means BEFORE the incident. Is this not AFTER the incident?

    Like closing the barn doors after the horses escaped.

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