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Iqaluit residents pick up bottled water donated by the City of Iqaluit on Oct. 15.Pat Kane/The Globe and Mail

The latest: Iqaluit officials to conduct environmental assessment as water contaminants linger

Days after declaring a state of emergency over a suspicious odour in its tap water, Iqaluit confirmed on Friday that it had identified high concentrations of hydrocarbons, consistent with diesel fuel or kerosene, in samples from the local water treatment plant.

Amy Elgersma, Iqaluit’s chief administrative officer, made the announcement at a news conference late Friday afternoon with Mayor Kenny Bell and Nunavut public health officer Michael Patterson. The city of 9,000 residents has been under a do-not-drink-water advisory since Tuesday, when workers first noticed a strong odour in a groundwater tank at the plant.

Ms. Elgersma said the contaminated tank has been isolated from the water system, and that the city is encouraged by the fact that the latest water reservoir test samples have come back “well within health limits.” She added that there aren’t any concerns about other possible contaminated areas within the system.

“The contaminated water is currently being pumped out into trucks and transferred into holding tanks to prepare for treatment and remediation,” she said.

The city said it has been flushing its water distribution system since Thursday and will continue doing so for another 48 hours. Residents will be asked to flush their own pipes, a process that will last into next week. That will be followed by a specialized, rigorous testing program to ensure there are no more contaminants in the water, Ms. Elgersma said.

Dr. Patterson said the city should be able to go back to normal water use once the water system has been fully flushed, but he could not say for certain when that would be.

According to Ms. Elgersma, the city and its engineering consultants suspect the fuel got into the water system from outside the plant, likely after travelling through soil or groundwater. The city is planning to conduct an environmental assessment of areas around the plant, including the grounds of a nearby diesel generating station.

The city has not been able to determine the exact amount of contamination. “The contaminants in the system we believe are quite low, but residents still may smell odours during the flushing program,” Ms. Elgersma said.

Dr. Patterson said the city is certain the contamination is not natural in origin, but otherwise has not ruled out any potential causes.

“These are not compounds you would find sitting on the ground. It could be an old spill liberated with melting permafrost, could be damaged infrastructure, but it’s not natural,” he said.

Residents had been reporting a fuel smell coming from the city’s tap water since Oct. 2, but tests hadn’t detected anything out of the ordinary until this week.

Ms. Elgersma said the initial testing was focused on disinfection, temperatures, and chlorine and pH levels – not catching hydrocarbons.

Residents have had to empty household water tanks and use pails and jugs to fetch water from the nearby Sylvia Grinnell River, or otherwise line up at a water depot, where trucks fill containers with treated water. The Nunavat government and other organizations, like the local Agnico Eagle Mine, have shipped thousands of litres of bottled water to the community. Pregnant women, infants and newborns have been advised not to bathe with what pours from their taps.

Rachel Shoapik, Leetia Kootoo, Emily Shoapik, and Cory Shoapik fill containers with water from the Sylvia Grinnell River in Iqaluit on Oct. 14., after authorities ordered residents not to drink the city's water due to suspected fuel contamination.CASEY LESSARD/Reuters

Last Friday afternoon, Andrea Salluviniq stood in line for water at a depot. She was carrying her six-month-old daughter, Alena, in the hood of her amauti, a traditional Inuit parka. Ms. Salluviniq and her family had been boiling river water all week to bathe the infant, she told The Globe. “We boiled it in tea kettles and put the rest of it cold in her little bathtub. It takes about 15 minutes just to get the water ready. We’re watching everything we do with the water,” Ms. Salluviniq said.

Priscilla Cooke, an operating room nurse from Cape Breton, shivered in line with a group of east coast nurses, all of whom flew to Iqaluit recently to spend a few months working at Qikiqtani General Hospital. Ms. Cooke landed just as the water crisis began.

“In the operating room it’s kind of grinded to a halt,” Ms. Cooke said. “We’re only doing emergency life-and-limb service right now. We’re on standby for that. We have no means of sterilizing our instruments and equipment.”

Dr. Patterson confirmed at the news conference that all but emergency surgeries would remain paused until the water is deemed safe, some time next week at the earliest.

He said there is no evidence of carcinogens in the water test results and that long-term health effects are not a concern, but that people who consumed water that had been heavily contaminated may get headaches, upset stomachs and diarrhea.

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

The city said it will continue to test and monitor the situation over several months.

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