Iqaluit’s new hydrocarbon monitoring system ‘unusual’ but ‘proactive,’ expert says
City installed real-time system in response to ongoing water emergency in Iqaluit
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.
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.