Nunavut’s chief public health officer defends response to Iqaluit water crisis

‘We have to be very careful when we put out messages that affect the entire community to this degree,’ says Dr. Michael Patterson

Iqaluit CAO Amy Elgersma, Mayor Kenny Bell and chief public health officer Dr. Michael Patterson gave an update on the water emergency in Iqaluit on Friday. (Photo by Mélanie Ritchot)

By Mélanie Ritchot

Nunavut’s chief public health officer as well as the capital city’s mayor are defending their timeliness in reacting to reports of fuel in Iqaluit’s drinking water before the contamination was confirmed.

Iqaluit and its 8,200 residents have been under a local state of emergency since Oct. 12, when fuel was first suspected in the city’s water source.

Chief administrative officer Amy Elgersma, Mayor Kenny Bell and Patterson gave an update on the situation Friday evening at a news conference.

Patterson said it wouldn’t have been appropriate or justified to tell residents, as a precaution, not to drink their tap water, while public health officials waited days to get results back about whether it was, in fact, safe to drink.

“We have to be very careful when we put out messages that affect the entire community to this degree,” Patterson said, adding it was important to get the information translated into all four languages before circulating it.

He said it’s about the fourth or fifth time he’s been involved in concerns about oil spills in Nunavut communities over the past few years but this is the first time it’s ever been confirmed in a water distribution system that presents a risk to the entire community.

Many Iqalummiut reported they smelled gas in their tap water as early as Oct. 2 on social media.

“I’m not trying to invalidate those concerns residents had brought forward,” Patterson said.

In response to the concerns on social media, the city initially said water tests came back clean and the smell might be chlorine.

About a week later, city staff smelled gas coming from a tank in the local water treatment plant and the mayor warned residents on Twitter not to drink it, before any orders came from the GN.

“I know my tweet may have caused some panic without the proper information there, but I wanted it out as soon as possible,” B Bell said on Friday.

The mayor and CAO were peppered with questions about the city’s response to residents’ concerns that their water smelled like fuel.

Elgersma said that the test to detect hydrocarbons in water cannot be done in Iqaluit.

She also said there may have been issues with the bottles used to send samples south for testing absorbing some of the contaminants, so they weren’t detected.

On Oct. 12, Iqaluit council declared a state of emergency, which remains in place. The Government of Nunavut also declared a state of emergency two days later.

The territory’s declaration was needed to allow it to deploy resources necessary to deal with the emergency. For example, the Canadian Armed Forces announced Friday they will be deployed to Iqaluit soon to provide a temporary water treatment plant.

Friday’s update came a week after Elgersma confirmed “exceedingly high concentrations” of fuel in a water storage tank at the local water treatment plant, on Oct. 15.

Elgersma confirmed the contamination likely came from diesel or kerosene in the soil or water around an underground water tank.

The affected tank has been isolated, meaning no water is passing through it.

Benzene, xylene, toluene and ethylbenzene — four chemicals that could cause serious health risks — were found in the tank after testing but they didn’t make it to people’s taps, Patterson said.

Elgersma said the harmful contaminants were not moving much and are light, so they floated to the top of the water in the one tank.

No major crack in the tank has been found so far, but the city is still investigating in case a smaller crack or break is present, she said.

The city has been flushing out all the water pipes in town for about a week. Originally, the process was supposed to be done on Monday, which would have ended the do-not-drink advisory if all went according to plan.

Now, the city is planning a second flush and advised residents to clean household appliances like coffee makers that the water has touched.

So far, there is no definitive timeline for when Iqalummiut can expect to drink from their taps again.

The Canadian Armed Forces were also deployed to Iqaluit on Friday to help residents get clean drinking water.

Since the do-not-drink order, thousands of litres of bottled water have been distributed to residents daily.

Volunteer delivery drivers and organizations like the Qajuqturvik Community Food Centre have been getting water to those in the city without vehicles, who aren’t able-bodied, mothers who can’t leave children home alone, and others who can’t easily pick up water at distribution stations.

This weekend, the city’s pick-up stations will be set up at Nakasuk School and the Arctic Winter Games arena in the afternoons from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday.

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(28) Comments:

  1. Posted by Still here on

    Do you see how these people are protecting each other and themselves with petty excuses, they have not tested enough households taps to make a determination that the water does not have benzene, why would patterson say this, these people are digging the whole worse for themselves, just admit that decisions could have been better and that you will be more diligent from this point forward, if i have these excuses my manager would have my $&@, Patterson you are a Doctor not a molecular scientist or chemical engineer, pull this guy away now, did he not say in one report that home heating fuel and kerosene do not have benzene, do some research , both petroleum products do have benzene, what are the longterm side affects from this problem, it’s leukaemia! Use your brain and research , we are not being told the full truth,

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  2. Posted by Water guy on

    Seems like someone(s) taking cover.

    Dr.Patterson, public health errs on the side of caution on daily basis with boil water advisories. There may not be any harmful bugs(bacteria, viruses) in the water but an advisory is called anyway to be on the safe side without knowing if they are their or not. In this case you had strong support leaning towards very harmful chemicals in the water and you did not respond accordingly. That being said your strong work on Covid may have residents giving you a pass. I suggest next time a different approach, also you may want to travel to the Walkerton Centre for training.

    Ms.Elgersma, there are field test that do indicate a presence of hydrocarbon, and take a day to 3 days for the results. I’m sure that your are a good CAO, but that does not give you the knowledge to speak of these issues and you should begin work on hiring the proper staff ASAP to deal with these issues.

    Mayor Bell, get off twitter and stop embarrassing yourself and Iqaluit.

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  3. Posted by Yikes on

    Wow, how incredible terrifying. Benzene, tylene, toluene all found in the contaminated tank but “none made it to the taps”… and what makes any qualified to make that determination. Why don’t they stop making a fool of themselves and get an actual expert to sit in during these pressers to answer these questions. Bell and Amy have lost all credibility and trust from the public… get an actual expert to provide the facts. Those chemicals are all carcinogens and known to cause cancer! You better be damn sure they weren’t making it to the taps of iqalumiut. Were they not making it to the taps just the same as the water was completely safe to drink for ten days, mayor bell?

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    • Posted by Employment opportunity on

      …or at least hire a comms manager.

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  4. Posted by Robert Gougeon on

    Maybe somebody should investigate around the former US military base… They could get a hell of a surprise.

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    • Posted by J Hess on

      The US of A has said in the past that This is the price You pay for US defending You during War Time.
      They would not help cleaning up any of the Dewline sites across the Arctic . Period

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  5. Posted by Robert Gougeon on

    Maybe somebody should investigate around the former US military base… They could get a hell of a surprise !!!

    Good luck !

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  6. Posted by Cesspool on

    This cesspool are your constituents who have been very vocal about their displeasure with your term. You don’t control the media and the fact that you are trying to blackmail them into not allowing criticisms and the truth is messed up. Weren’t you the one mayor who was so up in harms about censorship? Nunatsiaq news, any black tape lying around?

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  7. Posted by Nunavut on

    The city mayor and council, should be relieved of their duties, they called an emergency, the government has taken over, we should no longer be asking the mayor or council questions! The Canadian Military is doing the work that unqualified city mayor and staff can do.
    The have live press on facebook, not everyone has facebook, your message does not go to everyone, many still think the flush has gone and the water is safe now that they did a 20 minute run!
    If you can not see the crack in the tank, how is it that so much fuel is in the system! You just exposed the QEC for letting fuel spill into the environment and not cleaning it up! If it were a home owner, they would be paying 100 of thousands of dollars, GN has taken over, they will send you the bill, QEC the bill, and next election you will be back at inspecting drunks at the bars

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  8. Posted by No Trust on

    I have lost all trust with both the local and provincial governmets on this matter. I am certain we are being lied to about the scope of the issue and the risk that we have all been exposed too.

    I have lost all respect for Patterson after his performance today.

    How about we get some independent testing in here, to look at the actual levels of and types of contamination that we were exposed too – as we definitely cant trust the clowns running this show to tell us (they know its far worse than advertised)

    I will never feel safe drinking the water here ever again, as without replacing infrastructure it will never be truly safe to use, and the persons responsible are not qualified to do their jobs.

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  9. Posted by Poor doc P on

    Poor Doctor P saving face for these guys… this guy just worked tirelessly for the past two years to keep nunavut safe and now he has to pick up the pieces caused by these two. acting like they’re qualified to make any sort of decision or answer any question on this subject matter.

    It’s sad to see him struggle to try and cover for these guys. Just be honest Dr P, it was a complete mess up. If you aren’t sure if they water is safe to drink.. you always err on the side of caution. We all know you know this.. What a crappy situation to be in.

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    • Posted by Northern Guy on

      *sent too soon*

      I was going to say that Patterson did very little beside sit in front of a camera with the premier. The really hard work was done by nurses, epidemiologist and other allied health professionals. With regard to this situation GN Health bears as much blame as the city as they have primary responsibility for ensuring the safety of potable water in the communities.

  10. Posted by Enough already on

    “Patterson said it wouldn’t have been appropriate or justified to tell residents, as a precaution, not to drink their tap water, while public health officials waited days to get results back about whether it was, in fact, safe to drink.“ And getting the “right messaging” and waiting for translations into 4 languages including Inuinnaqtun in Iqaluit is more important than residents health and safety?

    What the hell!

    Ever heard of Walkerton. Now that was e-coli but the point is that it’s important when we’re talking water quality and safety. So act quickly, adopt precautionary principle, be transparent and most importantly CARE about your fellow residents.
    What were the levels if contaminants? No idea of the source of contamination. Now the army is being called in.
    Sounds more like a clusterf*** and while we appreciate the efforts of many to bring in clean water doesn’t mean we should get all the relevant information. Stop the coverups. Most of us have lost faith and trust with Bell, Amy and now Patterson on Iqaluit water. When are we going to hear from real water engineering experts?

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    • Posted by Inuktun? on

      I didn’t know there were Inuinnaqtun speakers in Iqaluit. Must be a pretty sizable population for such a time sensitive subject to be translated into that dialect.

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  11. Posted by 45 yrs ago on

    It’s time for independent investigation to ensure accountability and determine the cause , let’s all lobby together and get the process started

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    • Posted by Before it gets worse? on

      Is it possibly time to call some lawyers to get some legal advise about our rights, and what can be done to compensate those who’s health will be inevitably impacted over the coming years?

      Is it possibly time to call in some independant qualified water specialists, to properly and transparently investigate what has happened and is happening?

      After all, with the ass covering and lack of transparency now, wont it be much harder to find the evidence and get facts after things inevitably escalate down the road?

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  12. Posted by Samples from Taps??? on

    The city or the GN health department needs to get someone qualified to take a series of samples from taps in homes especially where a smell is still detected. The assumption that the most dangerous components of the contamination is not making it out of the tank is worrisome. Especially after the other assumptions that were made…

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  13. Posted by Poison Pill on

    Where is the fuel coming from and where is it going to?

    Department of Environment, that’s you, Mr. Premier, tell us what’s going on.
    .
    Is the fuel coming from the QEC fuel wank? Was there a fuel spill while pumping fuel into the tank? How much fuel was lost or is being lost? Is it 1 litre, 10 litres, 100 litres, 1000 litres? 10,000 litres, 100,000 litres, 1,000,000 litres?
    .
    We hear about a need to flush to clean the pipes. Is all this fuel being flushed into the Bay? The mines are not allowed to flush mine tailings water into the rivers and oceans. Is Iqaluit “flushing” petroleum into the Bay?
    .
    Will the clams and the char and the sea weed and the seals and the other marine life be poisoned and die? Will they live, but be poisonous , too poisonous for us to eat?
    .
    Minister of the Environment, you hold that portfolio until a new Cabinet is sworn in. Say something, do something.
    .
    Taima.

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  14. Posted by time to go on

    in a functional society these three would have resigned and be long gone.

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  15. Posted by Doubtful on

    Everyone on here is right we have seen CAO and the Mayor so often in emergencies that we can tell when your trying hard to hold back some facts without outright lying. The CPHO has earned my trust through covid but the language he is using here also has me wondering if he is covering for the city. Plus to quote a old manager of mine “emergencies that happen often aren’t emergencies, it’s miss-management.”

    The Mayor and CAO seem to be answering a lot of the technical questions, I thought you were working with the government, where are the water engineers?! Where is the waterboard Rep?! Where is the specialist or even your hired engineer to back you up? I know recreation has a pool but that doesn’t make you qualified. The lack of representation of any other organizations has me wondering if your working with anyone at all, or just blowing smoke. There are hundreds of talented engineers, lab techs, and specialists in nunavut and in iqaluit (not sure any of them work for you) but get one on stage for the questions.

    I read that you couldn’t find a crack in the well, not that surprising. If the building is sitting on the ground it should have more than a foot of insulation under it and at least 1 water barrier to prevent the ground from melting. So how did it melt? Did you skimp on construction for a building that keeps us all alive?! Also those water barriers are really tough if it didn’t crack and add weight/sink to rip the barrier how is the contamination passing through the barrier? Concrete ment to act as a bucket for water is water proof in both directions.

    It’s been a years since I was at the Power plant but it I remember correctly the water plant was uphill from the there, how did contamination travel uphill? Or did you build on contaminated soil in the first place?

    Why hasn’t anyone said what the contamination is? Specifically. You have said what it is not and what it could be but not what is was, or is that an issue for you if we know? if you not sure but it comes from the ground, test the ground. Scientists have been drilling samples out of nunavt for years, can’t be that hard to find someone to do that.

    Also you’ve told all of us to dump our water tanks twice no with no word of who is to pay that. How many can afford that? Or are you hopeful to cover the repairs with this new revenue.

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  16. Posted by nits on

    One reporter asked the best question. They asked something like ‘between October 2 and October 12 did the city have an actual negative test result (for any test that had been correctly carried out) for hydrocarbons?’. Elgersma replied, but it was nothing but word soup. There was no yes or no anywhere in there, even though it was a super long response. I can’t remember which reporter it was, but good on them for asking. I wish he had done like Kent Driscoll did and asked follow-up questions for clarification instead of accepting what seemed like a deliberate attempt to make the question go away.

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    • Posted by Facts??! on

      I agree. Attempts to gloss over and confuse the public with their answers. When did they test for hydrocarbons?! It is still not clear. Also, why did it take so long to find the contaminated tank? If they took public complaints seriously, why did they not check all tanks at the onset? Mayor bell spends more time reading and responding to anon comments then answering questions. Its just an attempt to shift the focus. Why is he so concerned about the identity of commenters? This criticism is not limited to NN comments. A lot of people are talking. Tell us the truth!

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    • Posted by nits on

      The questions I would ask the city are:

      What date did you get the results for the very first test for hydrocarbons?

      Was that test sample collected correctly?

      When you got that test result back, were you completely confident in the results?

      Something was causing an oily smell, and the city acknowledged that. Why weren’t residents instructed to exercise caution until the issue was identified?

      Can a reporter please ask these questions and insist on simple answers? I would ask myself, but I could lose my job.

  17. Posted by Concerned on

    Why aren’t we hearing from experts? I don’t believe the mayor or CAO are qualified to answer and provide complex information regarding hydrocarbons in our only water source. Iqaluit citizens deserve to hear from people who understand and are educated in this field. Also, does the city not do regular inspections of the water treatment plants? Given it’s a high risk if things aren’t caught on time. We don’t have any other water source. They need to be held accountable for this.

    This is terrible and the health effects that are possible. Wishing this will end soon.

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  18. Posted by Carbon Capture on

    Does anyone have their own samples of water during this timeline? I have some from the 29th of September. Should it be tested privately?

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    • Posted by YES but on

      Yes, but like they said wouldn’t any petroleum have evaporated or been absorbed into the container since then?

    • Posted by Good thinking on

      That is great you took a sample. The question is whether the sample you have was collected properly, whether there was cross contamination. You could contact Taiga Labs in Yellowknife and ask them about your samples, what bottles you used, lid, how you took the sample, how long ago, where you kept your sample, tell them you want to test for hydrocarbons, tell them about the smells and what we were told (not much) about what may be in tanks, ask for advice on what to test for, how to take good samples, what it would cost, how to send the samples and maybe do a go fund me campaign if cost of testing is a problem for you. I want to remain anonymous here but would be happy to contribute $ or a cooler bag or other stuff to send samples. With that advice, even if your sample is not perfect, it may be better than nothing and you may learn how to take a good sample now…

  19. Posted by drik it themselves on

    Id like to see all 3 of them pour up a tall glass of water from a tap and then chug it back in front of everyone. If they aren’t to concerned about everyone else drinking the water why not have them drink it!

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