Nunavut government to fly 80,000 litres of water to Iqaluit to address citywide crisis, mayor says

The Nunavut government is stepping in to help Iqaluit after the city declared a state of emergency Tuesday due to its fuel-contaminated water supply.

Residents told their tap water is not safe to consume, even if boiled

Residents collect water from the Sylvia Grinnell River near Iqaluit Wednesday, after city staff found evidence of fuel contamination in the city's treated water supply, making it undrinkable. (Emma Tranter/The Canadian Press)

The Nunavut government is stepping in to help Iqaluit with its water emergency crisis by flying in about 80,000 litres of water over three days, said the city's mayor, Kenny Bell.

"We're grateful for that," Bell said.

Iqaluit declared a state of emergency Wednesday after city staff found evidence of fuel contamination in the Iqaluit's treated water supply. 

Some residents complained last week on social media about a fuel smell in the water, but he said the water had gone through daily testing and it came back clean.

Then, on Tuesday, Bell said city staff opened a "typically sealed" tank in the water treatment plant that holds treated water before it gets distributed throughout the city.

"There was a strong smell of petroleum products," Bell said. If the water in that location is affected, he said, it would mean all of the city's water would be affected.

People in Iqaluit were buying bottled water Tuesday. A litre of water costs nearly $9, Mayor Kenny Bell said. (Matisse Harvey/Radio-Canada)

"We knew something was wrong," said Bell. "We're not 100 per cent sure if this is it but it most likely is based on the amount of smell in the tank."

The city says samples of the water have been sent to environmental laboratories out of the territory, but those results won't come back for at least five business days. CBC News has asked the Nunavut government to confirm the water-delivery plan and is awaiting a response.

In the meantime, the mayor said the city is cleaning the tank and inspecting its walls to look for cracks.

"We don't know how it got there, why it's there, what it is," Bell said of the smell.

Residents were advised Tuesday the water isn't safe to consume even if boiled or filtered. 

The Nunavut education department ordered schools in Iqaluit and Apex closed Wednesday, one day after an announcement that people in Iqaluit should not drink water from the tap. All territorial government buildings in the city were also to be closed for the rest of Wednesday, the territory said in a news release. They were expected to reopen Thursday at 8:30 a.m. for regular business.

WATCH | Iqaluit water not safe to consume:

Iqaluit water supply undrinkable after possible fuel contamination

1 year ago
Duration 2:02
Residents of Iqaluit have been told not to consume water from the taps after a possible fuel contamination at the water treatment plant, leaving people scrambling to get untreated water from the river or paying big bucks for bottled water.

With public health authorities saying the tap water wasn't safe to consume — and that pregnant women and infants should not even bathe in it — many of the city's nearly 8,000 residents were looking to find water somewhere else.

Bottled water, which can cost nearly $9 for a litre in Iqaluit, flew off the shelves Wednesday.

"Water cost money when you buy it from the store," said Iqaluit resident Johnny Mark, who was among those looking to buy clean water Wednesday. "All my life water has been free and we have never had this problem so this is something new to me."

Mano Faubert was waiting for city of Iqaluit water trucks to come back from the river Wednesday afternoon. The trucks were part of an city effort to provide alternatives to tap water. 

"I'm tired and thinking about all of those elders or people who have mobility issues that cannot be here," Faubert said. "What will happen to these people?"

In Iqaluit, like all of Nunavut's communities, bottled water already sells at a high cost.

For example, a 40-pack of 500-millilitre bottles at Northmart typically sells for $48.79 before tax, while a 24-pack is $27.99.

"It is extremely expensive, everything is extremely expensive here," Bell said.

He said people in immediate need of water who couldn't afford to buy it, could contact the city, which would get it to them as soon as possible.

"We want to make sure we're delivering water to two locations in town and delivering to elders and people with needs," he said. But capacity was tight, he said. 

"Right now, we're in limbo because there is not enough jugs to fill with water to give to people."

Bell said he was eagerly awaiting water-testing results. 

"We are at the mercy of the lab in the south and the flight schedule," Bell said.

Ongoing water troubles

Bell said officials were working on a way to bypass the water tank that is believed to be the problem, in effort to restore some water to homes soon — though even then, it could need to be boiled.

The city has set up filling stations and it said it is working on other ways to provide clean water. 

The federal NDP said Wednesday afternoon that it reached out to Bell to "offer help to find an urgent solution.

"Clean drinking water is a right and no community in Canada should go without it," the party said in a statement, on behalf of Nunavut MP Lori Idlout and Leader Jagmeet Singh. "Our thoughts are with Inuit and Nunavummiut in the face of this water crisis. All communities deserve access to clean drinking water."

City water trucks work by the Sylvia Grinnell River in an effort to provide alternatives to the tap water. (Emma Tranter/The Canadian Press)

Residents have been complaining about a diesel smell for the last week and half now. The City of Iqaluit and the Government of Nunavut had done multiple tests on multiple locations around Iqaluit, but, they were coming back clean.

The city then sent a new test to a lab in Ottawa and found some microbodies in it. Bell said that's when the city advised residents not to drink the water.

"They found one of our wells at our well treatment centre that, when they opened it there was a strong smell of petroleum, so we of course have serious concerns and that's why we put out the order to not consume," he said.

Beyond specific problem, Bell said the city has been in a water crisis for the last five years.

"We're going to be asking the government of Canada for a lot of money here soon," he said.

"Hopefully they're listening and paying attention to what's going on."

With files from Jackie McKay, CBC News Network and The Canadian Press