Small fuel spills can have big impacts on municipal water supplies, expert says

“If you have a vial of fuel … this is enough to contaminate a million litres,” says University of Ottawa’s Roberto Narbaitz

Petroleum contamination is suspected to have occurred at Iqaluit’s water treatment plant. Forthcoming test results should shed more light on what happened. (File photo)

By Jeff Pelletier

It only takes a small amount of petroleum to contaminate a municipal water supply, according to a water systems expert from the University of Ottawa.

Roberto Narbaitz, a professor emeritus from the university’s faculty of engineering, says petroleum is an incredibly volatile compound, and a tiny amount is enough to make a municipal water supply dangerous to consume.

“If you have a vial of fuel, it has a volume [of] let’s say my finger, this is enough to contaminate a million litres,” Narbaitz said in an interview, using his index to visualize his point. “It doesn’t take very much spilling.”

Roberto Narbaitz, a water system expert from the University of Ottawa’s faculty of engineering, uses his index finger to visualize how a small vial of fuel can contaminate a water system. (Screenshot provided by Jeff Pelletier)

The presence of petroleum in Iqaluit’s water supply has not been confirmed, although people have been complaining their tap water smells of fuel since Oct. 2.

At first, officials insisted the city’s water was passing all tests and safe to drink, but on Oct. 12 that changed when a city staff member opened a sealed compartment at the water treatment plant and smelled a strong odour of fuel. That’s when the city issued an order not to consume any treated water.

On Tuesday, samples were flown out of territory for further testing. Results are expected back soon.

Identifying the source of the suspected contamination is essential before the city brings its water system back online, Narbaitz said.

“Right now, it is a bit of a panic, but really addressing the solution involves determining where the source is,” Narbaitz said.

“Identifying the actual source and seeing if it can be cleaned up is critical for the long-term solution to the problem.”

Contaminants such as petroleum can enter water systems by several means. For example, gasoline from vehicles and power tools can enter groundwater or leak into reservoirs.

Narbaitz said that these types of contaminations are often the result of human error and people not realizing how much a mishandling of fuel can impact a municipal water system.

“It’s a matter of education and going through the procedures to see if there’s something we slipped up,” he said. “People sometimes make stupid mistakes and contamination occurs.”

After the lab tests are completed and the point of contamination has been cleaned, Narbaitz says activated carbon filters will need to be used.

“That is something that can be done at the municipal scale and even could be potentially at the individual homeowner scale, having an under-the-tap activated carbon filter,” he said.

This is not the first time a municipality has been forced to respond to a petroleum leak in its water system, and Narbaitz says it certainly won’t be the last.

He emphasized that investments in filtration technology, as well safety measures that protect groundwater and reservoir sources from contamination, are the keys to preventing this situation from happening again.

“We have this technology to overcome this. It may be expensive [but] if your source of water is contaminated, there is going to be a greater expense to maybe bring water from farther,” he said. “It is unfortunate … but, we’ll get over this, it is solvable.”

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(3) Comments:

  1. Posted by must be same in small community on

    in sanikiluaq people spill fuels a lot on the water supply lake from riding skidoo there

  2. Posted by Future on

    Maybe in the future, the city needs to consider monitoring for petroleum based contaminants and if the public raises a concern about petroleum product smells, it needs to test for that (I do not know if they did; suggestions from their public messaging was they tested for microorganisms…)…

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