'The water is technically safe,' says Iqaluit mayor. 'Does it smell bad to some people? Yes.'

Despite reports of Iqaluit’s tap water smelling like fuel, city and territorial officials say it’s well below Canadian water safety guidelines and is safe to drink.

Water is ‘considered safe for consumption,’ adds Nunavut’s Department of Health

An Iqaluit resident goes to pick up water at the city's Elders Qammaq on Monday. The city made the water available after residents complained of a new fuel smell in some tap water. Though tests have shown the water meets Canadian safety standards, both the city and the chief public health officer are responding to concerns about the smell. (Steve Silva/CBC)

Despite reports of Iqaluit's tap water smelling like fuel, city and territorial officials say it's safe to drink.

"The water is technically safe," said Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell. "Does it smell bad to some people? Yes."

Bell said the city has received 116 phone calls from residents reporting the fuel smell in their water since last Wednesday.

"We think that may be just... a little bit of residual oil that was there," said Bell.

On Oct. 12, the city's water system was found to be contaminated with hydrocarbons from an historic underground fuel tank. The city's residents spent nearly two months under a do-not-consume order.

Nunavut's chief public health officer Dr. Michael Patterson told CBC News there's no evidence of new hydrocarbons in the city's water treatment system since residents started reporting the fuel smell last week.

City of Iqaluit staff delivered clean water to the Elders' Qammaq on Monday, Jan. 17. (Steve Silva/CBC)

The territorial government said sampling of the city's water found trace amounts of fuel that were below Canadian safety guidelines "and considered safe for consumption."

In a statement, it added there is currently "no evidence that a do not consume order is necessary."

Bell said he expects the situation to be resolved "within the next day or so."

"I don't foresee this being a huge issue, not like it was in October," he said.

Lack of trust

However, both Bell and Patterson said they understand why residents are reluctant to drink the water.

"No one wants to drink... water that smells like fuel or tastes like fuel," said Bell.

Patterson explained that many people are able to taste the fuel in the water "long before it gets to the level that it causes health problems."

People in Iqaluit collect river water through holes carved into the ice at the Sylvia Grinnell River on Friday. (Dustin Patar/The Canadian Press)

Bell said he understands that many residents don't trust the city's water.

He said not trusting the city is why he ran for mayor.

"I knew things were wrong and I wanted to make sure that we did our best job to make that change," he said. "This obviously is a huge... anchor that's dragging us down.

"But you know, we are working hard. We are going to get through it."

Water being distributed

The city has set up a distribution point at the elders Elders Qammaq beginning Monday at 3 p.m., where residents can pick up clean water.

Bell said the city will continue doing that as it flushes the water out of the water treatment system to help get rid of the smell.

He added the water tanks will have to also be cleaned to make sure all traces of hydrocarbons are removed, a process that began Monday. 

Bell added that reports of the fuel smell in the water are primarily coming from the Plateau and the Road to Nowhere neighbourhoods, "but there are random ones outside of that area as well."

"Some people can smell it, others can't," Bell said, noting that he hasn't been able to detect the smell in any water.

"It's such a strange situation."

Written by Michel Proulx with files from Teresa Qiatsuq, Steve Silva