‘Nobody knows for sure’ how Iqaluit’s water became recontaminated, says Patterson

Chief public health officer says city will continue to bypass treatment plant until this question is answered

Iqaluit’s water treatment plant is offline while public officials search for answers on how the city’s water supply was recontaminated with fuel this month. (File photo by David Venn)

By David Venn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Officials are still trying to figure out why fuel keeps showing up in the Iqaluit’s treated water system, even after the suspected source of last fall’s fuel contamination is now clean.

“The obvious question is where are these hydrocarbons coming from and at this point nobody knows for sure,” said chief public health officer Dr. Michael Patterson in an interview.

Iqalummiut spent two months under an advisory to not consume their water, issued by the Health Department on Oct. 12 after fuel was found in the city’s water treatment system. On Dec. 16, six days after the advisory was lifted, the water at the treatment plant became contaminated again.

On Jan. 13, people in the city began to report a fuel smell had returned to their water. City spokesperson Geoff Byrne issued a news release the next day, stating that a treated water tank had been contaminated twice that week with “trace amounts” of fuel.

Patterson says the area thought to be the source of the contamination — a void surrounding the outside of the water treatment plant where an underground fuel tank was found to be leaking — had been scrubbed.

He speculated the recurring contamination could be from fuel still inside the water treatment plant, a new source of contamination altogether, or a recontamination of the void.

“Right now, all of those are possibilities and the only way to know for sure is to bring in the bypass and leave it in place until the source has been identified and the contamination removed,” he said, referring to a $100,000 system the city installed so usable water could still be provided to Iqaluit residents in case of another fuel contamination.

City staff excavated the suspected source of the water supply’s fuel contamination in November, before removing it from the nearby water treatment plant. (Photo courtesy of the City of Iqaluit)

Details on what exactly had been remediated before the Nunavut government lifted the water advisory are scant. Nunatsiaq News requested an interview with an executive from the firm hired by the city to clean the site, Qikiqtaaluk Environmental Inc., but was referred to the city for comment.

City spokesperson Aleksey Cameron said chief administrative officer Amy Elgersma was not available for an interview, and no other city staff could speak about the remediation process.

Mayor Kenny Bell refused Nunatsiaq News’s interview request.

Coun. Kyle Sheppard said in an interview he is unsure about exactly what had been cleaned before Dec. 10, but the areas inside the plant with the most contamination had not been.

Those underground tanks were isolated instead.

When the contamination started recurring in January, it took five days for the city to use its bypass system. Sheppard said the city wanted to attempt flushing the system before using the bypass because there are concerns sediment and debris might build up and damage pipes.

The city is theorizing that maintenance work on a treated water reservoir pushed the water level to higher than it normally is, and water from that reservoir mixed with one of those tanks that was isolated during the emergency last fall.

However, there may be other sources of the fuel contamination, according to a report from the firm the territorial government hired to review work done by the city’s hired firm, WSP Canada.

In its late-November report, Wood Environmental and Infrastructure Solutions wrote that there’s not enough data to verify that WSP’s theory about how the water became contaminated is “the single suspected source and transport mechanism.”

Sheppard disagrees, saying there is no evidence that points to any other potential source of contamination, and that Wood’s conclusion is based on there being no first-hand evidence of what caused the contamination.

“I’m fully confident that the cause identified is the cause of the contamination,” Sheppard said. “There’s no other viable explanation.”

Polytechnique Montreal civil engineering professor Benoit Barbeau studies drinking water, distribution systems, infection and environmental engineering.

Barbeau said it’s uncommon for contamination to be found in a water treatment plant’s treated tanks.

“It’s not normal that contamination comes inside the reservoir,” he said. “Usually a reservoir should have good integrity.”

A crew of 16 workers came from the south on Jan. 17 to clean the water treatment plant’s isolated nine-metre deep concrete tanks, and are almost done, said Sheppard. No cracks in these tanks have been found that he is aware of.

Cleaning a treatment plant the size of Iqaluit’s is a big job, Barbeau said.

It will probably need to be cleaned with a high pressure jet and then cracks, if there are any, will need to be filled by injecting epoxy.

Even then, when the treatment plant is clean, it’s difficult to get all of the contamination out of the system. It needs to be flushed at least three or four times, to catch “super hard to find” contamination in pipelines, said Barbeau.

“You can try to spot where the contamination is entering,” he said, “you can think that you have identified where it’s coming from, but it’s only when you put the system back in operation that you’ll see if you were right or not.”

Sheppard said he’s confident in the city’s new, real-time hydrocarbon detection system, with two monitoring systems set up at the water treatment plant, and city staff gathering water samples at access valves around the city.

Eric and Hannah Idlaut fill jugs with water the evening of Jan. 14 at the Sylvia Grinnell River after the City of Iqaluit said there were two events of contamination at the water treatment plant that week. (File photo by David Venn)

“We’re not finding concentrations of contaminants throughout the system,” he said.

Still, it took days for the city to tell the public contamination had returned to the city’s water system this month, and Sheppard explained this is most likely because someone only checks the monitor weekly.

“We didn’t know it was contaminated,” he said.

The alarm on water quality monitoring system is set at 75 micrograms per litre, which is below the Canadian Drinking Water Guidelines. Since the most recent contamination incidents, the city has lowered the alarm to go off at 50 micrograms per litre — the lowest level possible.

“There’s no discounting what impact this has on people. It’s incredibly impactful on our residents — all of them,” Sheppard said. “The only acceptable amount of hydrocarbons in the water is zero. And we need to get to a state where this does not occur again.”

Barbeau said the amounts of diesel contamination below the guidelines can be recognizable by smell or taste. For that reason, it’s easier to find than some other water contaminants, such as arsenic.

People can still feel nauseous from the smell of fuel, even if it is technically safe to drink.

“You can end up in a crazy situation where the water is actually potable according to standards but yet it smells like diesel,” he said.

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(12) Comments:

  1. Posted by Northern Inuit on

    a lot of finger pointing, a lot of questions, a lot of speculation, a lot of brutally messed up water.

    but not a lot of answers.

    seriously, all the money spent on this debacle and still nothing being done properly. not cool guys.

  2. Posted by What? on

    This is just unbelievable.
    They knew there were “some” hydrocarbons on Dec 16, nobody said anything until again public started complaining! Someone checks monitor once a week? And it took them a month. Nothing Sheppard says make any sense!

    Bell refused to comment???!!! Elgersma was not available either???!!! What a joke!

    It’s time to hold everyone accountable! Patterson doesn’t know anything. He can’t handle water or outbreak.

    Government keep proving how little they care about public health.
    How can we trust any of them?

  3. Posted by solution on

    The solution the city came out with last week for the contaminated water was to put in place a vaccine passport for city buildings…

  4. Posted by Why? on

    Why is the mayor not providing an update on the situation to Iqalummiut? Why is a regular councilor who is not an engineer with expertise on water treatment sharing his personal thoughts and portraying them as authoritative? Of course, the councilor in question has the right to express his thoughts as we all do but would you listen to a poet’s thoughts on how to perform brain surgery on you? Why aren’t we hearing from someone with the appropriate expertise and authority? We did get some believable info from the CPHO and the message is basically wait and see, I get that. But the mayor really should do his job to care for his citizens and deliver that message with a thank you for our patience.

  5. Posted by Joe on

    Officials that need a very long vacation. Thank you for your service but you are no longer required

    City Engineers
    Patterson-Only one welcome back on plane north.

  6. Posted by mayor quimby on

    So professionals with a lot of experience in this field at Wood Environmental and Infrastructure Solutions think there could be another point of contamination but our fearless leaders at the city disagrees, who should we trust here?
    It seems we have too much pride in the way with our mayor and councillors to admit they are wrong and we continue down this embarrassing path.
    Our health being compromised, GN please take over and stop with this embarrassment and incompetence.
    Get the professionals to do their job and track down where and what is wrong with our drinking water. Enough with the delays and incompetence.
    Where has our mayor gone?

  7. Posted by Casper the ghost. on

    When Kenny promised to be Iqaluit’s most transparent Mayor ever, we didn’t realize he’d literally disappear.

    What a clown show.

  8. Posted by Name Withheld on

    City of Iqaluit CAO should be answering all the question and giving update along with the Mayor. Not the CPHO !!!

    CPHO please stick to giving updates about Covid-19 and have the official’s elected and appointed to their job to be given updates on City’s situation, status on the water issue here in Iqaluit.

    Why aren’t the Council’s giving their instructions to the elected Mayor and CAO? Councils you have the power to make motions and approve those. Use it.

  9. Posted by What a gong show on

    Who are we supposed to trust??

    I would say Wood, a company not paid by the City. I would love to see WSP prove to Wood that there is no other possible source of contamination especially after two more contamination incidents. Engineers are never prepared to state something definitively unless they are absolutely 100% confident. Maybe Nunatsiaq News should contact WSP experts and check with them if their presumption is an assertion and if they still stand by it after three more contaminations (January 16, January 6, and January 12).

    So, we have the CPHO Patterson, Mayor and Wood state they don’t know where the contamination is happening but Councillor Sheppard disagrees?! Yet he contradicts himself when he says “there is no evidence that points to any other potential source of contamination” AND “Wood’s conclusion is based on there being no first-hand evidence of what caused the contamination”. This is completely CONTRADICTORY.


    There appears to be a lot of secret meetings happening. Seems the only ones being briefed are the Mayor and Councillor Sheppard. They get to decide what little bits of information they are prepared to share with media and residents.

    Residents complaints and concerns are repeatedly dismissed by the Mayor and citizens are told everything is fine, and that its okay to drink water with trace amounts of fuel and the GN said there was no need for do not consume water. But then WHAMO another contamination on January 12 – where, how much, what – and in hours the City installs a bypass.

    There’s no end in sight to the water crisis. Equally concerning is that citizens have to put up with leadership on something as important as having safe drinking water.

  10. Posted by delbert on

    Really. Be for asking for the 180 million to fix the water issues. It probably would be a good idea to find out how the water got contaminated. So the same thing doesn’t happen again.
    There is a saying that goes something like this. The definition of stupidity: is to keep doing the same thing over and over. And expecting a different result.

    When I read this article some of the spokesman made it sound that drinking a small amount of hydro carbons won’t hurt. Also not reading those meters for a week or so no big deal either. Yup so citizens of Iqaluit enjoy that real good water.

    • Posted by Kanuwhipit on

      Delbert, it is “insanity” doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

  11. Posted by Sick from the water on

    What about all the people who were reporting mysterious health issues during the past six months? Lots of people with non severe digestive issues, and skin problems that cannot be diagnosed despite multiple hospital trips. Are they going to blame that to mass hysteria? Long before there were detectable problems with the water many people had complaints about digestive issues and skin problems that mysteriously developed. Around July I developed severe skin problems, I have been prescribed various creams and medications that didn’t help at all… My doctor was getting ready to send me down to Ottawa for more testing. Since the boil water order my mystery skin problem cleared up all on its own? I am hearing the same for a lot of others.

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