How an Iqaluit homeowner's leaky tank cost her $250K

She isn’t alone — the government of Nunavut estimates the equivalent of 286 home fuel tanks were spilled in just 10 years.

She isn’t alone — government of Nunavut estimates 325,000 litres spilled in 10 years

A leak in Darlene Nuqingaq's home fuel tank resulted in a long — and expensive — cleanup. (Travis Burke/CBC)

When Darlene Nuqingaq moved into her Iqaluit home 25 years ago, she didn't give her fuel tank much thought.

She sure regrets it now.

Today, Nuqingaq is living in temporary housing as a massive, $250,000 excavation effort removes fuel contaminants from the soil around her property.

It all began with something surprisingly common in Nunavut — a leak in her home fuel tank.

In April, when the temperature in Iqaluit was still well below zero, Nuqingaq's furnace suddenly stopped. When she called a local maintenance company, they discovered it was empty.

"That's the first time ever in 25 years owning this house that we've had an empty tank," she said.

The culprit was a leak in the tank's "drip leg" — an extension to the main fuel line meant to catch moisture buildup.

In a homeowner's guide published in 2011, the government of Nunavut recommends the drip leg be drained "twice a year," ideally by professional plumbers or mechanics.

"I never knew to ask specifically, 'When you check the fuel tank can you also empty the drip line?'" said Nuqingaq. "I assumed that [was] part of regular check-ups."

Heavy equipment surrounds Nuqingaq's house, where workers dig deep trenches to remove contaminated soil. (Travis Burke/CBC)

Worse than a simple leak, the fuel had dripped directly onto an above-ground utility corridor containing water and sewage pipes shared by Nuqingaq and her neighbour.

"We never thought of the ramifications of having your water and sewage hookup underneath your fuel tank," said Nuqingaq. "[It was] a perfect conduit."

The fuel permeated the insulation, the sand below, and, eventually, even the permafrost underneath both houses.

Fuel leaks a common problem

The government of Nunavut's 2011 homeowner's guide lays just how disastrous a leaky fuel tank can be.

In great detail and with illustrative photos, the guide spells out the myriad ways in which old fuel tanks can cause expensive destruction.

"Case histories" give examples of homeowners left on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars because of minor leaks, including one just like Nuqingaq's.

"The above situations are actual events that could have been avoided," the guide says below.

"Over the past 10 years, approximately 325,000 litres — equal to 286 home heating oil tanks — of heating oil has spilled out of ... tanks in Nunavut," it continues.

The government of Nunavut's 'Illusrated Homeowner's Guide to Heating Oil Tanks' contains dozens of examples of how home fuel tanks can cause extensive — and expensive — damage. (Government of Nunavut)

'I never imagined that it would take this long'

After she discovered the leak, Nuqingaq initially turned to a local firm, Nunatta Environmental Services, to tackle the cleanup.

But when workers saw the scale of the job, her insurance brought in the services of GHD, a multinational engineering firm.

It's been months since then, and Nuqingaq anticipates at least "another two weeks" before it's finished.

"It's just taking a long time," she said. "I never imagined that it would take this long."

Both Nuqingaq and her neighbour have found temporary housing during the remediation.

"Luckily [our neighbours] don't blame us," she said.

Cleaning up home fuel spills is mandatory — and expensive.

Between personal and liability insurance, Nuqingaq is able to cover the estimated $250,000 cost of cleaning both her and her neighbour's plots.

"Insurance is one of those things that I just took for granted," she said. "That's how I've had to reframe it for us … recognizing that we have many blessings, the number one being home insurance."

With files from Jackie McKay