Fuel smell in Iqaluit water treatment plant on Oct. 8 was from repair work, officials say

Officials say the "unbearable" fuel smell reported on Oct. 8 by health and environment staff was due to maintenance on the water plant's boiler.

Independent investigation into water crisis is expected once emergency is over

In internal emails, government of Nunavut staffers reported seeing an 'oily surface' in a tank inside Iqaluit's water treatment plant. But officials say the tank was not connected to the water distribution system, and was offline at the time of inspection. (Dustin Patar/The Canadian Press)

Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell says the reported "unbearable" fuel smell from the city's water treatment plant on Oct. 8 was from repair work on the fuel line for the water plant's boiler.

Government of Nunavut emails obtained by CBC News through an access to information request show staff from the Nunavut Health and Environment departments inspected the water treatment plant four days before the government of Nunavut's "do not consume" order was issued on Oct. 12.

The inspectors also reported seeing an "oily surface" in a tank inside the plant, along with fuel smells so strong they had to leave the building for fresh air.

Bell called the emails "a bunch of noise," and further explained the tank with the "oily surface" was a filter tank which isn't part of the water distribution system.

"I'm told that this oily substance happens naturally in that tank all the time. From the beginning of time until now, it still happens," Bell said.

"But that tank was also offline because of an electrical issue that happened from a power outage that fried one of the circuit boards."

Included among internal government emails were pictures of water tests of Iqaluit's water treatment plant. Officials later clarified the tank was a filter tank, which is not part of the water distribution system, was offline at the time of testing, and it's normal for there to be oily residue in the filter tank. (Government of Nunavut)

Nunavut Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson corroborated Bell's explanation on the tank – adding the tank filters water coming from Lake Geraldine and catches "organic matter."

On the fuel smell, Patterson couldn't say for sure whether it was the maintenance work alone, or a combination from the problematic North tank. He said even in hindsight, "it may be hard to figure out where it was coming from."

North tank wasn't checked during initial inspections

Still, Bell and Patterson each said the problematic North tank – where officials first observed the water had been contaminated, prompting the Oct. 12 "do not consume" order – was never inspected until the day the order was issued. 

"I think there were differing reports on how thoroughly the treatment plant had been inspected," Patterson said, adding he didn't know why it took so long for the tank to be inspected.

"The fact that it took that long to get the tanks opened up and inspected has to be a matter of significant concern, and one of the things that needs to be done as part of any review of this incident to look at that timeline to get that done."

Patterson said an independent review into the water crisis is most certainly coming once the crisis is over – something Bell also said he's requested.

"For any event this big, we do reviews as a matter of course," Patterson said, adding they would outsource the review to a third party.

"Partly to ensure we capture the lessons learned of stuff that actually worked well, but also to improve our processes and policies so that things that did not go so well aren't repeated in the future."

Both men reiterated how tests of water from taps and faucets throughout the water crisis have shown the quality meets or exceeds acceptable safe drinking standards.


  • This story was updated to clarify that tests of water from taps and faucets throughout the crisis have shown the water meets or exceeds drinking water standards. Previous wording could have been misconstrued.
    Dec 07, 2021 3:29 PM CT


Nick Murray


Nick Murray is a CBC News reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He specializes in investigative reporting and access to information legislation. A graduate from St. Thomas University's journalism program, he's also covered four Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports.