Health Department staff noted a strong smell of what was possibly diesel throughout the Iqaluit water treatment plant four days before the Government of Nunavut issued a do-not-consume water advisory. (Photo by David Venn)

By David Venn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

An “unbearable” diesel-like smell at Iqaluit’s water treatment plant was reported to Department of Health decision-makers several days before people were publicly warned to stop drinking the city’s water, due to fuel contamination.

A PID device tests the air quality over a container of water taken from a tank at Iqaluit’s water treatment plant Oct. 8. (Photo from Health Department emails)

Department of Health environmental officer Wilfred Ntiamoah was at the plant Oct. 8. His emails are included in documents obtained by Nunatsiaq News through Nunavut’s access to information law.

There had been public complaints starting on Oct. 2 of a fuel-like smell in the city’s tap water, and Ntiamoah indicated he was looking into a “diesel fumes or smell issue” at the plant itself.

He remarked in one email that he wanted to look into why the doors at the plant were opened widely.

“Was it to dissipate built-up … diesel smell/fumes,” he asked.

He brought an air-monitoring tool called a photoionization  detector (PID) with him to measure levels of dangerous fumes within the plant. He wrote the smell was so bad in certain areas of the facility that he had to leave the building for fresh air.

“Interestingly, the levels drastically dropped when the test was conducted outside of [the] water plant,” he wrote in an email, in which he concluded the city should consult with an environment consultant to look into whether the smell at the plant was related to the reported odours in the water.

A PID measures fumes, such as diesel fuel or gasoline, in the air.

Michele LeBlanc-Havard, an environmental health specialist with the GN, described the PID in one email as a “quick and dirty” test that shows “where to look more closely.”

“If it doesn’t show any volatiles it’s a good bet the more detailed test won’t show anything,” she wrote on Oct. 7.

The tests all showed volatiles in the air inside the water plant. Ntiamoah called some of the peak levels from his tests, which came in at 15.9 parts per million, “significant.”

He included photos of his PID at work throughout the plant. One photo shows a staff member taking a measurement of a container filled with water taken from what is labelled as “Tank #1 with oily surface.”

Iqalummiut have been under an advisory to not consume the city’s treated water since Oct. 12. On that day, Mayor Kenny Bell told Nunatsiaq News that officials decided to warn people after workers noticed a “strong smell of gas” at the plant.

The city’s chief administrative officer, Amy Elgersma, who is also the city’s acting public works director, was not available to be interviewed for this story.

Nunatsiaq News asked city spokesperson Aleksey Cameron when city employees began reporting a strong diesel smell at the water treatment plant. Cameron said it would be inaccurate to say city staff ever reported such a smell.

“On October 12th, city staff reported smelling a Varsol paint thinner like odour which led to the discovering (sic) of the concentrated contaminants in the North Clear Well,” she said.

Ultimately, it’s up to the territory’s chief public health officer to issue water advisories. Dr. Michael Patterson has defended the 10-day lag in warning people about the water, saying it wouldn’t have been appropriate to issue an advisory to not consume the water as a precaution.

Nunatsiaq News reached out to the Health Department to request interviews with Patterson and Ntiamoah. Spokespeople Danarae Sommerville and Chris Puglia said neither of them were available for an interview.

This item is reprinted with permission from Nunatsiaq News, Iqaluit, Nunavut. See article HERE.

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