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
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.”
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.”