Iqaluit residents on piped water will have to wait until at least the middle of next week to drink municipal water again.

That was one of the details to emerge during a public update from the City of Iqaluit on Oct. 15.

The hydrocarbons found in the drinking water are most likely diesel or kerosene, according to Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut’s chief public health officer (CPHO).

Patterson said long-term health effects are not a concern at this point, with the most concerning compounds, such as benzene, toluene and other carcinogens not being found in the water.

Residents who have consumed heavily contaminated water may get headaches, upset stomach or diarrhea, symptoms that would resolve after the hydrocarbons pass through a person’s system.

The contaminated tank at the water treatment plant is being emptied, said Iqaluit’s chief administrative officer Amy Elgersma.

She later confirmed that the “concentration of contaminants has been isolated” to that single tank.

After the affected tank is cleared out, additional investigative work will be done to determine how exactly fuel got into the city’s water supply.

In parallel to the investigation of the water tank, an environment site assessment is going to be conducted, whereby samples are taken from around the plant to find out where the contamination is coming from. This will explore all possibilities, Elgersma said, including the possibility that it’s coming from the nearby diesel fuel power plant that provides the city’s electricity.

System to be flushed soon

“It’s important to note that the water quality testing of the treated reservoir located downstream from the treatment plant showed (contamination) levels well within limits,” said Elgersma. “This part is very good news.”

To remove contaminants from the water plant and distribution system, the city has begun the process of flushing the system for 48 hours, starting on Oct. 15.

Once the flushing is complete, residents will receive instructions via a public service announcement to flush their pipes by running their water for 20 minutes.

The first reports of a fuel smell coming from the water initially suggested that the contaminants originated either at the Plateau or Road to Nowhere, said Elgersma. However, it is now “fair to say that it wasn’t concentrated in one particular area,” she added.

“We expected we may find some cracking in the tank somewhere and there may be some contamination that’s on site somehow; that may have seeped through cracks in the wall, that’s where the investigation has led to this point.”

Currently the city has five water trucks at its disposal, three which normally operate, a fourth that has been brought back into service and a fifth private vehicle being contracted by the municipality to help meet heightened demand.

Hospital impacted

The operating room at the Qikiqtani General Hospital has also been impacted by the territorial capital’s water crisis.

“The operating room is on limited capacity — it’s emergency surgeries only because of two reasons: one, there was concern that if there was a film in the water (then) surgeons and the scrub nurses would not be able to properly sterilize their hands,” said Patterson.

The second concern related to the hospital’s equipment used to sterilize lab equipment and waste, which uses heat to kill bacteria and spores. With possible hydrocarbons in the water vapour, the water under pressure and heat “could be dangerous,” limiting the number of instruments hospital staff can use, according to Patterson.

This will continue at least for the next few days, until the Department of Health can determine when it’s safe to resume normal surgeries.

The city is currently approaching 200,000 litres off bottled water flown in on cargo and chartered flights from various sources, which include the territorial government, private companies such as miner Agnico Eagle and other sources.

The Government of Nunavut has also commissioned a mobile water treatment plant that will be installed in the near future.

So far the cost of the city’s water crisis has not been determined, it was stated on Friday.

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