Iqaluit hospital limits surgeries as city water tests show 'exceedingly high concentrations' of fuel

The results of water quality testing in Iqaluit showed "exceedingly high concentrations of various fuel components" in one of the city's water tanks, the city's chief administrative officer said Friday at a news conference, as residents learned their water supply will remain undrinkable until at least mid-next week.

No major health concerns for those who drank the water, says Nunavut's chief public health officer

Residents line up to fill containers with potable water in Iqaluit on Thursday. The first shipment of potable water for residents arrived by plane, with more expected to be delivered on Friday. (Emma Tranter/The Canadian Press)

The results of water quality testing in Iqaluit showed "exceedingly high concentrations of various fuel components" in one of the city's water tanks, the city's chief administrative officer said Friday at a news conference, as residents learned their water supply will remain undrinkable until at least mid-next week. 

While officials said the water could contain diesel or kerosene the territory's top doctor doesn't see long-term health concerns for those who drank the water.

Water treatment plant operators discovered a concentrated odour in the tank this week, after residents reported smelling fuel in the tap water for over a week. The city told residents not to drink the tap water on Tuesday, and later declared a local state of emergency.

Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell took questions from across the country Friday on his city's fuel-contaminated water supply. Amy Elgersma, the city's chief administrative officer, left, also took part, along with the territory's chief public health officer, Dr. Michael Patterson, right. (Jacqueline MacKay/CBC)

Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut's chief public health officer, said the water contamination has meant Iqaluit operating rooms at the Qikiqtani General Hospital are working with limited capacity and doing emergency surgeries only.

"There was concern that if there was film in the water, surgeons … and the scrub nurses would not be able to properly sterilize [their] hands," he said.

Another concern is the use of a steam autoclave, a type of sterilizer that uses vapours at high temperatures and under pressure, could be dangerous if it contains fuel components, he said.

Instead, Patterson said hospitals are using one-time use instruments as much as possible. He added that will continue for at least the next few days until it's known that it's safe to go back to normal operations at the hospital.

Amy Elgersma, the city's chief administrative officer, said that in spite of the high concentration of fuel in some water samples, it's difficult to quantify the concentration of fuel components in the water that came out of residents' taps.

Do not consume order still in effect

A cause of the fuel contamination in the water tank has not been determined yet. Officials said nothing has been ruled out.

"It could be an old spill that's been liberated with [thawing] permafrost, it could be damage to the infrastructure … there's a number of things but it's not natural," Patterson said.

The order to not drink tap water is still in effect. Patterson said it won't be until at least mid-next week when the city can even think about lifting the do not consume order.

Amy Elgersma, Iqaluit's chief administrative officer, says she'll let the public know as soon as they get test results of the city's water. (David Gunn/CBC)

In the meantime, the first shipment of 80,000 litres of bottled water, ordered by the city, arrived on Thursday while city trucks and residents collected water from the Sylvia Grinnell River.

The Nunavut government also declared the city to be in a state of emergency on Thursday, which allows it to have more authority over assigning its departments and public agencies under the Emergency Measures Act.

Long-term effects 'not a concern'

Patterson said there are no major health concerns for those who drank contaminated tap water.

"The best evidence that we have available right now indicates that the risk of long-term health effects [are] not a concern at this point," Patterson said.

People who consumed water that had been contaminated may get headaches, may have gotten upset stomach and diarrhea, he said.

"Symptoms like that would resolve, generally within a few hours as these hydrocarbons pass through their system," Patterson said.

Contaminated tank bypassed

The city has two water tanks in the ground, called the south tank and the north tank.

Elgersma said as of Thursday night, the north tank — the one with the contamination — had been isolated. 

"The tanks were verified this morning that the valves are holding and the isolation was successful," Elgersma said.

The city is running water through the south tank now, and it's showing noticeable signs of improvements already including a reduction in odour, she said. 

That's a "really positive step," Elgersma said. "Today, we plan on pumping out the tank with the problem. And we will then contain all of that water in holding tanks."

People wait in line for water outside of the public library next to Frobisher Bay. (Emma Tranter/The Canadian Press)

Elgersma said the goal Friday is to empty the entire north tank and then, over the weekend, to inspect the tank and look for cracks or compromised areas. 

"We're really hopeful that we can resolve this issue quickly," she said, adding the city is "pleased with the success" of being able to isolate and bypass the problem tank on Thursday. 

The city also started flushing the water distribution system Thursday and that's expected to continue for another 48 hours.

Once that's done, residents will get instructions on how to flush their home pipes by running their water for 20 minutes, Elgersma said. Testing and monitoring will continue over several months. It's suspected that contaminants from outside the plant in the soil or groundwater entered the tank.

Elgersma said a consultant would also be carrying out an environmental assessment of the entire water treatment plant site, to look for possible contaminants in the soil. 

"There'll be more holes drilled and test pits dug, and so on," she said. 

More bottled water, baby formula coming

Elgersma said the city will have a water tank on a trailer set up at each water depot location (the library and the Arctic Winter Games Arena) and it will be replenished by a water truck throughout the day.

The Government of Nunavut is expected to bring in more bottled water. Three shipments are expected to arrive by plane on Friday and the territory has ordered water jugs that people can use as well. 

A sign at Arctic Ventures Marketplace, a grocery store in Iqaluit, shows bottled water was sold out on Thursday. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

Meanwhile, the city set up a water hotline at 867-979-5603 for those having trouble getting water themselves.

Agnico Eagle, which operates several mines in Nunavut, said it's sending 15,000 litres of water to Iqaluit on a cargo flight that is to land on Friday too.

Elgersma said pre-mixed baby formula has been ordered as well, some of which will arrive Friday. 

She said the city is also ordering water pitcher filters, which can be used on water from the river after it's boiled, to bring people more comfort.

"We know it's been extremely difficult for residents, for businesses for everybody involved," she said. 

"There's a lot of people helping others, bringing water to others and doing whatever they can to help each other, and that's really great to see."


  • A previous version of this story said water sample testing revealed "exceedingly high concentrations of various fuel contaminants." It has been updated to reflect that those results come from one of two in-ground water tanks.
    Oct 16, 2021 12:17 PM CT

With files from Jackie McKay