Days after declaring a state of emergency due to a suspicious odor in its tap water, Iqaluit confirmed on Friday that it had identified high concentrations of hydrocarbons, compatible with diesel fuel or kerosene, in samples of the local wastewater treatment plant.
Amy Elgersma, Executive Director of Iqaluit, made the announcement during a press conference late Friday afternoon with Mayor Kenny Bell and Nunavut Public Health Officer Michael Patterson. The town of 9,000 residents has been subject to a water no-use advisory since Tuesday, when workers first noticed a strong odor in a groundwater tank at the plant.
Ms Elgersma said the contaminated reservoir has been isolated from the water system and the city is encouraged that the latest the water tank test samples returned “well within healthy limits”. She added that there were no concerns about other potentially contaminated areas within the system.
“Contaminated water is currently being pumped into trucks and transferred to storage tanks to prepare for treatment and remediation,” she said.
The city said it has been emptying its water distribution system since Thursday and will continue to do so for another 48 hours. Residents will be asked to flush their own hoses, a process that will last for the next week. This will be followed by a program of specialized and rigorous testing to ensure that there are no more contaminants in the water, Ms. Elgersma said.
Dr Patterson said the city should be able to return to normal water use once the water system has been completely flushed out, but he couldn’t say for sure when that would be the case.
According to Ms Elgersma, the city and its engineering consultants suspect that the fuel entered the water system from outside the plant, likely after passing through soil or groundwater. The city plans to conduct an environmental assessment of the areas around the plant, including the grounds of a nearby diesel plant.
The city has not been able to determine the exact amount of the contamination. “We believe the contaminants in the system are quite low, but residents can still smell odors during the flushing program,” Ms. Elgersma said.
Dr Patterson said the city is certain the contamination is not of natural origin, but has not otherwise ruled out any potential causes.
“These aren’t complexes that you would find sitting on the floor. It could be an old spill released by melting permafrost, it could be damaged infrastructure, but it’s not natural, ”he said.
Residents had been reporting a smell of fuel coming from the city’s tap water since October 2, but tests had found nothing abnormal until this week.
Ms Elgersma said initial testing focused on disinfection, temperatures, and chlorine and pH levels – not oil capture.
Residents had to empty household water tanks and use buckets and jugs to fetch water from the nearby Sylvia Grinnell River, or queue at a water depot, where trucks fill up treated water containers. The Nunavat government and other organizations, such as the local Agnico Eagle mine, have shipped thousands of liters of bottled water to the community. Pregnant women, infants, and newborns have been advised not to bathe with anything dripping from their taps.
Last Friday afternoon, Andrea Salluviniq was lining up for water at a depot. She wore her six-month-old daughter, Alena, in her amauti’s hood, a traditional Inuit parka. Ms Salluviniq and her family had been boiling water in the river all week to bathe the baby, she told The Globe. “We boiled it in tea kettles and put the rest in the cold in its little tub. It takes about 15 minutes for the water to be ready. We monitor everything we do with water, ”said Ms. Salluviniq.
Priscilla Cooke, an operating room nurse from Cape Breton, shuddered at a group of east coast nurses, all of whom recently traveled to Iqaluit to spend a few months working at the Qikiqtani General Hospital. Ms Cooke landed just at the start of the water crisis.
“In the operating room, it’s kind of stopped,” Ms. Cooke said. “We are only doing emergency life and limb services at the moment. We are waiting for this. We have no way of sterilizing our instruments and equipment.
Dr Patterson confirmed at the press conference that all but emergency surgeries will remain on hold until the water is deemed safe, at the earliest next week.
The said there was no evidence of carcinogens in water test results and long-term health effects are not of concern, but people who have consumed heavily contaminated water may have headaches, stomach aches, and diarrhea.
“Such symptoms would usually resolve within a few hours as the oil moves through their system,” said Dr Patterson.
The city said it would continue to test and monitor the situation for several months.
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