The N.W.T. Department of Transportation says the government hopes by late Monday to begin extracting under 28,000 litres of fuel from a tanker that broke through the ice on Great Bear Lake over the weekend.

The Bassett Petroleum delivery truck was about three kilometres away from Deline when it broke through and became stuck in the lake ice early Saturday afternoon. The lake there is 100 metres deep.

"My direction to the on-site folks would be to get it [out] as soon as safely possible," Kevin McLeod, the department's director of highways, said of the tanker's fuel load Monday morning.

"We're anticipating that that could happen in the next 12 to 14 hours or so. I want them to ensure that the proper safety precautions are in place. I don't want to make the situation worse."

Deline Chief Leonard Kenny said the truck is close to where residents catch their lake trout and herring. 

"It's also not too far off from our water intake to supply the community with freshwater," said Kenny.

"It could contaminate Great Bear Lake. It's one of the freshest and most pristine lakes in the world."

Danny Bayha, who sits on the Deline Land Corporation's board of directors, said the community is on edge.

"Some of the elders were pretty upset," said Bayha.

"We're pretty anxious, nervous, about hopefully there's never going to be any fuel spill. We're sort of disappointed that it's taken this long for the folks to get mobile and try to take this very seriously."

Within an hour of learning about the incident, the government called on B.C.-based Nor-Ex Ice Engineering for advice on removing the fuel and the truck and opening a short detour lane around the truck, said McLeod.

"I think that within the next 48 hours or so we'll have a detour for light traffic so that lighter traffic can go, and then they'll slowly increase the weights so that fully loaded weights can go," said McLeod.

'We don't know what's going on'

Bayha said residents are disappointed there have been no public information sessions.

"We don't know what's going on," Bayha said.

"Right now people are expecting people are doing something about it. What this is — they should be telling people about that. I think it's a lot better than guessing."

McLeod said the government is updating Chief Kenny on a daily basis.

"We're certainly open to a public session, if required," said McLeod.

Deline is still due to receive about 70 truckloads of fuel, according to McLeod. Though the access road typically closes at the end of March, McLeod said he could not predict at this stage how much longer the road will stay open.

That's got the community worried about fuel needing to be flown in, says Bayha.

"It would be a nightmare. Our people are going to be paying the price at the pump."

Pressure to get resupply back on track

McLeod said he knows that is a concern.

"All I can say is that I'm concerned that we safely extract [the truck] and as soon as we can do that and develop a detour, the sooner we can get the resupply process back on track."

Seymor Jacobs, general manager of the Great Bear Co-op, said the store is waiting on five truckloads of heavy, expensive-to-fly goods such as sugar, flour, bleach and canned goods.

The maximum permitted truck weight on the access road was increased to 40,000 kilograms as of March 2, after ice measurements showed the ice to measure between 100 and 120 centimetres — which was "about 10 days later than normal in terms of getting to that thickness," according to McLeod. 

McLeod said all trucks travelling on the road are weighed at a weigh station in Enterprise, but that he had not yet checked the weight records on the truck.

"The RCMP are interviewing the driver. We're talking to the dispatcher. We're reviewing the history of the truck. And once everything settles down, we'll do a forensic on what happened."

Asked if he could confirm whether the truck was within the weight restrictions, Norm Bassett, vice-president of Bassett Petroleum, said, "Not until the investigation is complete."