‘Unbearable’ diesel smell reported at Iqaluit’s water plant days before advisory

Health staff had to leave the facility for fresh air during Oct. 8 inspection

Health Department staff noted a strong smell of what was possibly diesel throughout the Iqaluit water treatment plant four days before the Government of Nunavut issued a do-not-consume water advisory. (Photo by David Venn)

By David Venn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

An “unbearable” diesel-like smell at Iqaluit’s water treatment plant was reported to Department of Health decision-makers several days before people were publicly warned to stop drinking the city’s water, due to fuel contamination.

A PID device tests the air quality over a container of water taken from a tank at Iqaluit’s water treatment plant Oct. 8. (Photo from Health Department emails)

Department of Health environmental officer Wilfred Ntiamoah was at the plant Oct. 8. His emails are included in documents obtained by Nunatsiaq News through Nunavut’s access to information law.

There had been public complaints starting on Oct. 2 of a fuel-like smell in the city’s tap water, and Ntiamoah indicated he was looking into a “diesel fumes or smell issue” at the plant itself.

He remarked in one email that he wanted to look into why the doors at the plant were opened widely.

“Was it to dissipate built-up … diesel smell/fumes,” he asked.

He brought an air-monitoring tool called a photoionization  detector (PID) with him to measure levels of dangerous fumes within the plant. He wrote the smell was so bad in certain areas of the facility that he had to leave the building for fresh air.

“Interestingly, the levels drastically dropped when the test was conducted outside of [the] water plant,” he wrote in an email, in which he concluded the city should consult with an environment consultant to look into whether the smell at the plant was related to the reported odours in the water.

A PID measures fumes, such as diesel fuel or gasoline, in the air.

Michele LeBlanc-Havard, an environmental health specialist with the GN, described the PID in one email as a “quick and dirty” test that shows “where to look more closely.”

“If it doesn’t show any volatiles it’s a good bet the more detailed test won’t show anything,” she wrote on Oct. 7.

The tests all showed volatiles in the air inside the water plant. Ntiamoah called some of the peak levels from his tests, which came in at 15.9 parts per million, “significant.”

He included photos of his PID at work throughout the plant. One photo shows a staff member taking a measurement of a container filled with water taken from what is labelled as “Tank #1 with oily surface.”

Iqalummiut have been under an advisory to not consume the city’s treated water since Oct. 12. On that day, Mayor Kenny Bell told Nunatsiaq News that officials decided to warn people after workers noticed a “strong smell of gas” at the plant.

The city’s chief administrative officer, Amy Elgersma, who is also the city’s acting public works director, was not available to be interviewed for this story.

Nunatsiaq News asked city spokesperson Aleksey Cameron when city employees began reporting a strong diesel smell at the water treatment plant. Cameron said it would be inaccurate to say city staff ever reported such a smell.

“On October 12th, city staff reported smelling a Varsol paint thinner like odour which led to the discovering (sic) of the concentrated contaminants in the North Clear Well,” she said.

Ultimately, it’s up to the territory’s chief public health officer to issue water advisories. Dr. Michael Patterson has defended the 10-day lag in warning people about the water, saying it wouldn’t have been appropriate to issue an advisory to not consume the water as a precaution.

Nunatsiaq News reached out to the Health Department to request interviews with Patterson and Ntiamoah. Spokespeople Danarae Sommerville and Chris Puglia said neither of them were available for an interview.

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(42) Comments:

  1. Posted by Walkerton Lessons on

    This is approaching Walkerton levels of incompetence. Now they are denying the concerns and health risks to their own employees. Water is an essential service and the right people with the skills and knowledge need to oversee its operations.

    • Posted by Walkerton? No. on

      This whole situation sucks, for sure. But fact check: Walkerton was an outbreak of E. coli and Campylobactor jejuni bacteria. Which is deadly. The GN and the City are both having test results come back clear. BTEX, at the levels that were ever found (in the tanks, not in the pipes and taps in homes) is not deadly. Now is not the time for people to incite fear.

      • Posted by Say that to Expecting Mothers on

        Tell that to the expecting mothers, and the many parents. Sure many of us are not concerned for our personal health, but for the kids and expecting mothers this is very dangerous. We do not know what the impact of drinking these hydro carbons will have on the development of youth! Also important to note is that this is Walkerton level negligence that we had unqualified people in positions. Specifically the CAO who has been acting for almost 2 years as the Director of Public Works. We need an investigation into this, and council needs to hold the administration responsible!

        • Posted by Expecting mother on

          Any other new moms drink the water early on in pregnancy? It’s so sad. I am undergoing testing, and have been in contact with a specialist down south. Now 16 weeks … I have an extensive ultrasound coming up with a specialist because they are worried about the potential for mutations given drinking the hydrocarbons so early on. Wondering if anyone also is in the same boat/ has been given any similar information.

          • Posted by concerned parent on

            I was wondering if there is anyway you could let us know as my wife was also in an early stage of pregnancy at this time?

      • Posted by Uninformed on

        Hydrocarbons after a certain levels can be just as deadly. Especially to expectant mothers or people with health issues. Strong smells of gas or diesel in a water plant should be investigated right away and a do not consume order in effect until the source is found. Should be common sense

        • Posted by After certain levels, yes on

          Yes after a certain level, but check the test results. Tests keep coming back under that level.

          As an expecting mother, I’m more concerned about walking through the cloud of cigarette smoke on the way to and from my office entrance every day.

          • Posted by Uninformed on

            You mean the test results that were from a test that was done incorrectly? Theres an article on CBC stating that the initial tests they sent out were package incorrectly. Amy Elgersma admitted earlier in the crisis that the itnitial tests they conducted couldn’t even detect hydrocarbons. That’s why the sample have to be flown out, but they can’t package it correctly.

      • Posted by Richard on

        Please cite the source where it confirms: “The GN and the City are both having test results come back clear.” Nice statement, but I must have missed that release.

  2. Posted by The right thing to do on

    Given this information I think it’s time for all of the decision makers involved to step down. It’s the only honorable thing to do.
    I’d understand if they don’t step down until this crisis is over, but when things are back to normal everyone needs to step down.
    Don’t be surprised if the City faces a class action lawsuit over this negligence.

    • Posted by Step down on

      Our mayor needs to step down, he has shown us all how incompetent he is and lacks leadership, Mr mayor you can’t look to blame the previous mayor on this one, you seem to try and blame everyone but yourself and that is not leadership.
      We need a petition started to remove the mayor. Enough is enough!

      • Posted by Daniel on

        Calling for persons to step down is needed. Mr. Bell thank you for your leadership in this. This is a very trying time, for everyone involved. The fact that you constantly try to update your constituents as soon as you can, is by my measure, shows how concerned you are about this. Some people will always look to have a scapegoat. This issue is a learning point, in which it shows how lacking our government staff are in the tools needed to do their work.

      • Posted by Daniel on

        Calling for persons to step down is not needed. Mr. Bell thank you for your leadership in this. This is a very trying time, for everyone involved. The fact that you constantly try to update your constituents as soon as you can, is by my measure, shows how concerned you are about this. Some people will always look to have a scapegoat. This issue is a learning point, in which it shows how lacking our government staff are in the tools needed to do their work.

  3. Posted by Make Iqaluit Great Again on

    Looks like the good Doctor Patterson who everyone worshipped during the pandemic might not be such a superstar after all. Now we know why Patterson went out of his way to defend Mayor Bell and the city for not warning people sooner. Looks like Patterson did so because he is joined at the hip with the city in this scandal!! They both were grossly negligent in failing to warn citizens in a timely way!!

    Good reporting Nunatsiaq! Keep digging!!

  4. Posted by Negligence, Negligence, Negligence! on

    Where did this PID inspection go to? I assume if they are in the City Plan the City knew there was a smell of fumes. This is just pure negligence. When was Patersons office informed of the issue? If there was a smell of fuel in the plant on Oct 8 how could the Mayor without any confirmed test say it was safe to drink!!!! Nunavut needs a 3rd party watch dog for Municipal Councils and Water Operations. This happened after Walkerton and Should happen here! Mayor, Council, and CAO should all resign! Kudos to the front line staff working so hard during the crisis, and had to work with this laughable leadership!

  5. Posted by Pointing fingers? on

    Dr. P has a tough gig, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.

    This whole thing is an unfortunate event. I feel like maybe folks should step back before yelling around about scandals. I’ve watched the city staff and the gn staffers work very hard to get this sorted out. There’s more to the story than what’s being sensationalized here.

  6. Posted by Oh my on

    It just gets worse. Purely gross negligence.
    This is bad, very bad. Ultimately, someone does need to be held responsible.

    There still has been absolutely no apology.
    Does the mayor not feel semi responsible for assuring the public the water was absolutely safe to drink without the proper test results? How much worse can it get?

    How is the public supposed to have confidence in this government (city and GN) after this? Where is counsel? Where is the no confidence motion? Amy and Kenny need to go. Handing out bottles of water after this major incident does not make up for how bad this is.

    Have the integrity to admit you were wrong and have no clue what you’re doing and then step down.

    • Posted by Enough on

      Enough, step down already Kenny! During these difficult times we need a leader and you have done a terrible job at that. Step down.

      • Posted by For the love of god on

        Kenny if you truly care about this city and it residents, you will acknowledge that you are not equipped for this job and will step down. We deserve better . Make way for someone who has the competence to get us through this with some trust in the city still intact. Do the right thing for the city and people you live so much. It’s time.

  7. Posted by River Rat on

    Now everyone is not available for comment. Suprise, surprise.

    Access to information laws can’t come for the city quick enough. This is absolutely infuriating to read. Thank you Wilfred Ntiamoah, for you helped to force the hand of this city administration and level their collective hubris to a whisper. Even though you may have not been allowed to report your findings publicly, there is no way the people’s complaints could be ignored any longer. It is unacceptable that they allowed people to consume the water for FOUR MORE DAYS after your test and observations. One has to feel bad for the workers in that environment too.

    Let’s hope for an inquest after the dust settles. Everyone involved must be held accountable.

  8. Posted by Deflecting mayor on

    Makes sense why Mayor Bell’s been trashing the media Trump-style so much. He’s trying to deflect the conversation away from the gross negligence of his “the water’s safe to drink!” comments.

    Remember when the mayor quit facebook for like a week because it was too toxic? Then he created a mayor of iqaluit facebook account, then used that account to tell people the toxic water was safe?

  9. Posted by Angry inuk on

    PURE INCOMPETENCE, as a water truck driver in a small town I take pride in my job, I would not give anyone contaminated water, if it’s safe for me and it’s safe for everyone,but smelling fuel in a treatment plant that’s a big no no, FIRE THEM

  10. Posted by reporting preference on

    It is a small town….I think working-level officials should be reported by title not name. Yes, name the decision makers.

    • Posted by Uninformed on

      If anyone doesn’t want their name attached to a job title, especially in public service, I highly recommend not having a public servant job.

  11. Posted by The shitty of Iqaluit on

    Once again more news of how the shitty of Iqaluit did a horrible job at the start of all this. We asked them before why they didn’t do a do not consume or even a basic advisory on October 2nd when residents made initial complaints. Now we find ourselves asking why didn’t they do any advisories or do not consume order about it on October 8th when health staff couldn’t bear the smell of diesel in the treatment plant? Mayor Bell and his B team need to own up to this kinda stuff man.

    • Posted by You do realize… on

      You do realize that the city of Iqaluit doesn’t have the legal authority to enact a do not consume order right? And if you’re following the story- they called public health right away. It’s public health that didn’t pull the trigger.

      • Posted by No mr mayor on

        No mr mayor you failed to tell the people there is something wrong with our water, stop trying to blame someone else but yourself!

      • Posted by Step down! on

        They don’t have the authority to issue a ‘do not consume’ order but mayor bell can issue ‘the water is safe’ message publicly without repercussions??? He needs to step down he has failed the city staff and residents in a big way. Hands down the most incompetent leader this town has seen. Absolute joke! He won’t step down because Who’s gonna hire this fool after this?

  12. Posted by Richard on

    This is all on the City if Iqaluit leadership, who still aren’t giving councillors (let alone residents) the straight goods. Mayor Kenny is way past his best before date and he’s protecting the CAO for some reason. On the matter of public health, Dr. Patterson is duty bound to exercise restraint in reacting to concerns, especially when Mayor Kenny and city leadership repeatedly stated there was no fuel in the water. Keep in mind where responsibility and accountability lives.

  13. Posted by delbert on

    I always thought it was only natural gas and raw oil deposits that petrol companies searched the world for. Now a new find that will change the oil and gas industry forever. A diesel well here in Iqaluit. Or was it DIESEl spill that contaminated the water the GN will never tell.

    • Posted by report on

      It was an old, rusted out tank that leaked. There’s no real controversy about that. This publication and the City posted a picture of the tank the diesel came from.

      • Posted by Richard on

        A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it is hardly the whole story.

  14. Posted by KEnny smells on

    FAKE NEWS! Cesspool of lies!! This is not the real world… go for a walk!!

  15. Posted by Jaret the one eyed gopher on

    i know lots of people with rashes. what about the sick babies? LAWSUIT!

  16. Posted by Gotta go on

    I don’t care if it’s the supervisor of the treatment plant, the mayor, or the CAO. Someone screwed up major! 4 days?!? This isn’t ignorance, this is negligence!!! This city always band-aids and ignores problems in their water system!! I’ve seen inside the vaults around the city, tip of the iceberg, ticking time bomb, all the cliches.

  17. Posted by Let’s Go Brandon on

    When will the residents of Iqaluit demand that Mayor Bell resigned? How much more health needs to he damaged due to his ego maniac attitude? He will never accept accountability, it’s up to residents of Iqaluit to demand for his resignation, Dr Patterson needs to be held accountable too, he said there is no benzene in the water, but test showed it was over 600 times above what is acceptable.

    Please Resign Kenny!

    Let’s Go Kenny!

  18. Posted by sharp shooter Inuk on

    Let your friend Baffinland help Iqaluit. They will fix every problem you have, they promise.

  19. Posted by Angry inuk on


  20. Posted by Funny on

    So funny how the mayor shares the good news stories on his Mayor Bell FB account and Twitter but not the bad-news stories that point out the cities deficiencies. Is that supposed to be transparency?

    We all are right through you Mayor Bell! You’re NOT the hero that Iqaluit has always needed, despite you trying to paint all previous mayors as useless. I am almost certain that Madeline would not have screwed up as much as you have.. you are the worst mayor in the history of Iqaluit. But you continue to try and stroke your big-little ego all over social media.. ha ha

  21. Posted by Yes but on

    The water contamination issue we are dealing with is definitely something that requires accountability and a leader who takes responsibility and respects their citizens, and I share the frustration of my fellow Iqalummiut. I do not know if the mayor should resign or simply be voted out in the next election, but I wonder who will be willing to expose themselves to the type of personal criticisms we have been hearing. Will someone responsible like the previous mayor and/or someone who was sometimes acting mayor before that be willing to put their name forward? I am really worried we may have as limited and uninspiring a choice as the one we had in the most recent mayoral election. We need someone solid, ethical and with maturity and decency in that role… sigh…

  22. Posted by Yup on

    This cancel culture needs to end sometime, understandable the mayor needs to go, but trying to get everyone fired or stepped down is stupid, who would replace them? more unqualified people?

    • Posted by Yes on

      I don’t think we can sink any lower or get any more unqualified people, what we do need right now is our leaderships taking responsibility and being accountable open and sharing information.
      When will this be fixed? Simple question.

Comments are closed.