Lower Base workers continue to toil in oil

“It’s like cod fishing. You come home, you stink. So you have a shower.”



Utilidor installation has resumed, but residents’ concerns remain in the Lower Base area of Iqaluit, where work was halted because of soil contaminated with petroleum.

The installation of sewage and water mains by Tower Arctic was brought to a halt by a Workers Compensation Board order on Thursday, July 14, after workers had complained that noxious fumes rising from the ditches were making them sick.

An oily sheen that gleamed in the puddles that accumulated inside the ditches hinted what soil sample tests sent to Ottawa later confirmed: the culprit in question is petroleum.

Among the contaminants in petroleum is lead, which can cause serious health problems, especially to children.

But the amount of lead found in 14 samples taken from the work site and surrounding area are low enough that they shouldn’t be considered a health risk, said city engineer Brad Sokach.

“As far as I can tell, there isn’t any imminent danger to the workers or the residents,” Sokach said.

The origin of the oil is still unknown.

On Monday, July 25, after the manager of the site met with safety inspectors, work resumed with higher safety precautions in place.

Workers now use a hydrocarbon detector, or “sniffer,” to gauge the level of contaminants inside any ditch they enter. They wear face masks and protective clothing if the sniffer shows that contaminants could be a health risk.

Precautions against fire have also increased on site, in case the strike of a shovel against stone creates a spark and ignites the mixture. And workers need to wash their hands and feet after working in the dirt, to prevent contaminants from spreading around town.

On an overcast Wednesday morning, workers on site weren’t too concerned about the contaminants.

“It’s not bad. It’s like any job,” said Travis Foley at the worksite, who hails from Placentia Bay in Newfoundland. “It’s like cod fishing. You come home, you stink. So you have a shower.”

Hot, humid days are the worst, he said, when he can smell fumes rising from the unearthed soil. But with the wind up and rain falling for the last several days, Foley said he hasn’t been bothered.

Still, the spectacle of workers wearing face masks makes some residents worry about their property values, or wonder if they should be outfitted with similar protection.

Debbie Purchase, who owns a house in the neighbourhood, said she’s bothered by the smell and concerned what long-term health risks the contaminants might pose.

“Should we have protective masks as well?” she asked.

“You have kids playing in the dirt. Any amount of contaminants is too much. Get real.”

Construction is expected to continue until the end of September.

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