Water tests from Iqaluit show ‘exceedingly high concentrations’ of fuel

The results of water quality testing showed “exceedingly high concentrations of various fuel components,” Iqaluit’s chief administrative officer said Friday, but the territory’s top doctor doesn’t see major health concerns for those who drank the water before they were told not to on Tuesday. 

The city of Iqaluit held a news conference at 5 p.m. ET Friday to announce the results from testing of the city’s water supply, which was declared unsafe to drink. 

Water treatment plant operators discovered a concentrated odour in one of its tanks this week, after residents reported smelling fuel in the tap water. The city told residents not to drink the tap water on Tuesday, and later declared a local state of emergency.

Amy Elgersma, the city’s chief administrative officer, said that in spite of the high concentration of fuel in some water samples, it’s difficult to quantify the concentration of fuel components that would be found coming out of residents’ taps.

Amy Elgersma, Iqaluit’s chief administrative officer, says she’ll let the public know as soon as they get test results of the city’s water. (David Gunn/CBC)

The first shipment of 80,000 litres of bottled water, ordered by the city, arrived on Thursday while city trucks and residents collected water from the Sylvia Grinnell River.

The Nunavut government also declared the city to be in a state of emergency on Thursday, which allows it to have more authority over assigning its departments and public agencies under the Emergency Measures Act.

Long-term effects ‘not a concern’

Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut’s chief public health officer, said there are no major health concerns for those who drank contaminated tap water.

“The best evidence that we have available right now indicates that the risk of long-term health effects [are] not a concern at this point,” Patterson said.

People who consumed water that had been contaminated may get headaches, may have gotten upset stomach and diarrhea, he said.

“Symptoms like that would resolve, generally within a few hours as these hydrocarbons pass through their system,” Patterson said.

Suspect tank bypassed

The city has two water tanks in the ground, called the south tank and the north tank.

Elgersma said as of Thursday night, the north tank — the one with the suspected contamination — had been isolated. 

“The tanks were verified this morning that the valves are holding and the isolation was successful,” Elgersma said.

The city is running water through the south tank now, and it’s showing noticeable signs of improvements already, including a reduction in odour, she said. 

That’s a “really positive step,” Elgersma said. “Today, we plan on pumping out the tank with the problem. And we will then contain all of that water in holding tanks.”

People wait in line for water outside of the public library next to Frobisher Bay. (Emma Tranter/The Canadian Press)

The order to not drink tap water is still in effect.

The water will be kept in the holding tanks until the city knows what the contaminant is, so it can be treated.

Elgersma said the goal Friday is to empty the entire north tank and then, over the weekend, to inspect the tank and look for cracks or compromised areas. 

“We’re really hopeful that we can resolve this issue quickly,” she said, adding the city is “pleased with the success” of being able to isolate and bypass the problem tank on Thursday. 

Elgersma said a consultant would also be carrying out an environmental assessment of the entire water treatment plant site, to look for possible contaminants in the soil. 

“There’ll be more holes drilled and test pits dug, and so on,” she said. 

More bottled water, baby formula coming

Elgersma said the city will have a water tank on a trailer set up at each water depot location (the library and the Arctic Winter Games Arena) and it will be replenished by a water truck throughout the day.

The Government of Nunavut is expected to bring in more bottled water. Three shipments are expected to arrive by plane on Friday, and the territory has ordered water jugs that people can use as well. 

A sign at Arctic Ventures Marketplace, a grocery store in Iqaluit, shows bottled water was sold out on Thursday. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

Meanwhile, the city set up a water hotline at 867-979-5603, for those having trouble getting water themselves.

Agnico Eagle, which operates several mines in Nunavut, said it’s sending 15,000 litres of water to Iqaluit on a cargo flight that is to land on Friday too.

Elgersma said pre-mixed baby formula has been ordered as well, some of which will arrive Friday. 

She said the city is also ordering water pitcher filters, which can be used on water from the river after it’s boiled, to bring people more comfort.

“We know it’s been extremely difficult for residents, for businesses for everybody involved,” she said. 

“There’s a lot of people helping others, bringing water to others and doing whatever they can to help each other, and that’s really great to see.”

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