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Soil contamination likely to blame for Iqaluit water crisis; still no clear timeline for safe drinking water

Canadian Military looking for location for mobile water treatment plant
Nunavut’s chief public health officer Dr. Michael Patterson, foreground, Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell and Iqaluit’s chief administrative officer Amy Elgersma provide details during an update on the city’s water crisis on Oct. 22. Trevor Wright/NNSL photo

The investigations into how fuel got into Iqaluit’s water supply has found potential contamination in the soil or groundwater outside of Iqaluit’s water treatment plant, which is seeping into one of the plant’s wells.

“The city has successfully isolated the tank that was affected and has completed an initial inspection,” said Amy Elgersma, Iqaluit’s chief administrative officer (CAO) on Oct. 22.

The contaminated water was found in the north clear well tank in the treatment plant. There are two clear wells at the site.

While no obvious cracks were found on the tank upon inspection, it still needs further examination from additional support personnel and consultants, said Elgersma. She added that by the end of Oct. 22, the impacted tank should be completely drained and those examinations can begin.

There’s still no clear set time for when Iqaluit residents can start drinking their tap water again, officials say.

The first phase of the environmental site assessment has finished and phase two has started.

The city is also implementing an online, real-time monitoring station that will focus on detecting hydrocarbons. The station was installed on Oct. 22.

However, it’s taking longer to flush Iqaluit’s water than the expected 48 hours mentioned in a recent municipal update.

“We decided to implement a directional flushing program from the plant outwards into the distribution system, so that took a little longer than expected,” said Elgersma, who added that the flushing will be done sometime on the weekend or early next week.

The Canadian Armed Forces is offering support. Currently the military is looking for a suitable spot to place a mobile water treatment plant that the Government of Nunavut has requested.

“I met with Maj. Scott Purcell this afternoon via Zoom … they’re looking at multiple different locations and making sure they fall under our emergency water licence,” said Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell.

Other than that it’s still too early to say what other roles the military might play, according to Bell.

On Oct. 18, there was a spike associated with the flushing operations ongoing in the city, however this was after the advisory to not drink the water was made.

Chief public health officer Dr. Michael Patterson noted that the smell of fuel in the water was stronger last weekend, which resulted in a rise in complaints from residents.

“In some settings it will still have the smell,” he said. “For many people, you will smell it long before it presents a health hazard.”

Despite the circumstances, the city’s mayor said he couldn’t be any prouder of the community’s response to this.

“It’s a rough situation to be in but we’re pulling together well. Businesses have come together — even outside businesses and organizations have come to our aid. The City of Iqaluit staff are unbelievably fantastic. It’s honestly an honour to serve with them. The Government of Nunavut and Dr. Patterson’s office have been a great help,” Bell said. “This is very important to us, and we’ll get this work done as soon as we can. But thank you for your patience.”