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Testing shows high concentrations of fuel in tank at Iqaluit's water treatment plant

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IQALUIT — The City of Iqaluit says testing shows a high concentration of fuel in a tank that supplies water to the Nunavut capital, but long-term health effects are not a concern.

Officials at a news conference Friday said the fuel could be diesel or kerosene.

"The results of water quality testing showed exceedingly high concentrations of various fuel components in the sample collected from that tank," said Amy Elgersma, the city's chief administrative officer.

Residents of the community of 8,000 people were told Tuesday not to drink tap water after it was discovered it may be contaminated by fuel.

The Nunavut government has been flying in shipments of potable water, while many residents have collected fresh water from a nearby river.

Elgersma said the city has isolated and bypassed the contaminated tank, and its water is being pumped out into trucks and transferred to holding tanks so it can be treated.

Once the tank is emptied, the city will conduct an investigation to determine how contaminants entered it, she said.

Water in the city's treated reservoir, which is downstream from the treatment plant and is the last point before water delivery, showed levels "well within health limits," Elgersma said. 

"This part is very good news."

The city is also flushing its water distribution system to remove contaminants. The process is to continue for another 48 hours, then residents will get instructions to flush their home pipes by running their water for 20 minutes. 

Iqaluit's hospital, the only one in the territory, will only be doing emergency surgeries for now, over concerns about sterilizing tools with contaminated water. One-time-use instruments are to be utilized as much as possible.

In addition, the city is doing an environmental assessment around the water treatment plant to look for possible contaminants in the soil. 

The cause of the fuel contamination has not yet been determined.

Nunavut's chief public health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson, said whatever the cause is, it didn't happen naturally. 

"It could be an old spill that's been liberated with (thawing) permafrost. It could be damage to the infrastructure … there's a number of things. But it's not natural," he said. 

Patterson also said there does not seem to be any health risks to Iqaluit residents who drank contaminated tap water.

"The best evidence we have available right now is the risk of long-term health effects is not a concern at this point," he said. 

Residents who consumed "heavily contaminated water" may have had headaches, diarrhea and upset stomachs, he said.

Carcinogens were not found in the water, he added. 

Residents may be able to start drinking tap water again in the middle of next week, Patterson said, depending on more test results. 

Some residents had reported smelling fuel in their water last week, but city officials said regular testing came back clear.

Elgersma said the city sent water samples away on Oct. 4. but city staff didn't have proper testing kits and the lab in Southern Canada told them to send samples in other testing bottles.

"These samples likely lost potency during transport ... the city the next day ordered specialized kits," she said. 

Testing and monitoring is to continue over the next several months, she added.

The road to the Sylvia Grinnell River will be closed for maintenance for up to 12 hours starting Saturday afternoon. The Nunavut government said in a statement the work needs to be done so city water trucks can continue to use the road.

The dirt road is "too rough" for the water trucks and needs to be worked on during the day before frost sets it, the statement said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Emma Tranter, The Canadian Press