IQALUIT, Nunavut — Iqaluit resident Jenny Ell says she couldn’t believe it when she turned on her tap a couple of weeks ago and smelled fuel for the second time in a matter of months.
Ell, who is pregnant, said she was worried for her baby’s safety and immediately contacted the city.
“I’m hanging in there,” Ell said. “Hopefully they’re not slow about it like the last time it happened.”
About 8,000 people in the territory’s capital city couldn’t drink the tap water for two months last fall when it was found to be contaminated with fuel.
Many Iqaluit residents reported smelling fuel in the water again this month.
The City of Iqaluit has confirmed trace amounts of fuel were found in the water in January. The water has met Canadian drinking water guidelines, but Iqaluit’s treatment plant has been shut down and a bypass is being used to pump water to residents.
The city has said the source of contamination is suspected to be fuel from a historic tank buried next to the plant that leaked into the ground underneath and mixed with groundwater below.
But questions remain around how fuel showed up in the water again, nearly three months after it was first detected.
James Craig, a University of Waterloo engineering professor who studies water resource systems, said fuel is a difficult substance to remove, especially when it’s stuck in soil.
When fuel ages in soil, he said it will slowly leak out when exposed to any new clean water passing by.
“The short answer is that it could have been there a very long time,” Craig said.
“Any time you have a high concentration of a material next to an area of low concentration, it will naturally diffuse in the direction of low concentration.”
The city has said it did not find any cracks in the tank and that the fuel entered through vapour intrusion. That means it slowly leaked into the water treatment plant through the concrete tanks’ exterior pores.
Craig said it would likely need to be a significant amount of fuel to leak into concrete tanks in such high concentrations.
“Those concentrations were very surprising to me to see those show up due to vapour migration, especially if they hadn’t been detected before,” he said.
Both the city and Nunavut’s health department have said none of the water coming out of drinking water taps tested above the levels for what is safe.
Craig added that it would be “highly speculative” to discuss how fuel got into the concrete tanks without knowing how Iqaluit’s water treatment plant works.
The city dug up the historic fuel tank last fall and Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell said clean up continues around the plant.
But because fuel is so persistent, it can hang around a long time if it’s not completely removed from the soil, said Craig.
“Even when the source is gone, there’s still material present,” he said. “Without knowing the details of what they did in terms of the remediation and the removal of soil in addition to the tank, I can’t really speculate why there would be additional gas appearing.”
Qikiqtaaluk Environmental, the group contracted to clean up the plant site, declined an interview and directed all inquiries to the city.
The City of Iqaluit did not respond to a request for an interview.
The Canadian Press has repeatedly requested data on what type of fuel was found in the historic tank and in the water, but has not received a response.
Craig said because fuel moves slowly in the ground, it could continue leaking months later if it’s still stuck in the soil.
“That kind of delayed response is not surprising,” he said.
Craig said the city’s engineering reports on the cleanup and investigation into the contamination will likely shed some light on how fuel ended up in the water again.
“The devil is definitely in the details here,” he said.
Nunavut MP Lori Idlout has called for a public inquiry into Iqaluit’s water crisis.
The Nunavut government has said a third-party review will be conducted.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan., 30, 2022.
Emma Tranter, The Canadian Press