Iqaluit’s water supply restored, but… | Polarjournal
Around Iqaluit there are some lakes and a big river. But the population can not simply drink the water from it. The water must be laboriously filtered and purified before it can be safely consumed. Map: Michael Wenger via Google Maps

In Iqaluit, Nunavut’s capital, residents had to be supplied with clean water externally for about two months due to contamination of the drinking water supply. It was not until mid-December that the all-clear could be given and the water from the taps could be consumed again without danger. But just six days later, the danger bell had to be rung again.

On December 10, authorities had declared that drinking water contamination had ended and levels were back to normal. This was after the 7,740 inhabitants had to be supplied with drinking water from outside for around two months because high levels of hydrocarbons from diesel and kerosene had been measured in their own water supply. But just six days later, the residents had déjà vu: once again, the drinking water smelled of fuel and the measurements revealed contamination with hydrocarbons. Although this time the authorities were able to react more quickly and remove the contamination from the system. But for many residents and also the local media, this was the drop too much into the water barrel. Especially because only three weeks later authorities informed about what had caused the problem.

The two-month water crisis in Iqaluit was caused by a leak in a 60-year-old diesel tank located next to the water treatment plant (red building at right). Vapors then entered the treatment plant through the soil and a water tank, contaminating drinking water. Image: Google Street View / City of Iqaluit

In the first incident, which had lasted from October to December, fuel had leaked into the ground from a 60 years old diesel tank next to Iqaluit’s water treatment plant. The fuel mixed with groundwater deep below the plant, which was then forced into an surge tank. More and more fuel got into the tank, slowly evaporated and the vapors got into a raw water tank before cleaning. Because drinking water in Iqaluit is purified with chlorine, the fuel was not removed and led to the long-lasting contamination. It took a long time for the source of the pollution to be discovered and communicated to the population. In order to supply the population with sufficient water, huge quantities of drinking water bottles were flown to Iqaluit. At the same time, also, the Canadian Army installed and operated a filtration and purification system for the duration of the crisis.

UPDATE: A report published by the regional newspaper Nunatsiaq News yesterday casts doubt on the reason for the contamination last October. According to an initial assessment by an expert company, the reason might not have been the leaking diesel tank. The company’s expert believes that not enough data would support this theory and other factors should be considered as well. A more extensive investigation is needed for this, the report says. Another possible source could be the energy production plant located right next to the water processing plant, the newspaper quoted the report as saying.

In order to provide drinking water on a large scale, the Army installed and operated filtration systems^ as seen here in the video that appeared on Facebook.

The second incident occurred only six days after the authorities had given green light for the drinking water. During maintenance work, contaminated water had flowed into a clean, treated water tank, polluting the drinking water. Through the real-time monitoring system, the elevated levels of hydrocarbons were detected and an emergency response plan went into effect. After a brief shutdown, the affected tank was disconnected from the grid, the system was flushed and later reopened. The agency then gave the all-clear, stating that they would publish water monitoring data until further notice. In addition, the affected areas of the plant will be remediated and continue to be inspected.

Iqaluit’s water supply has been under criticism for some time. Due to the rapid growth of the community, the supply has reached its capacity limits and should be expanded urgently. The location of the water treatment plant also gives rise to criticism. Image: Tokyobear via Wiki Commons CC BY 4.0

In the media, the authorities have to endure many critical questions, especially when it comes to communication. In particular, the fact that the second incident had occurred in mid-December but had only now been made public was met with incomprehension by some residents, as a glance at the comments in the media shows. The fact is that the water supply in Nunavut’s largest city has been under criticism for some time. The rapid growth of the population in recent years has led to capacity bottlenecks. It has also been criticized several times that right next to the water treatment plant there is a large plant for energy production, which still relies on diesel in Iqaluit. In addition, water control had been criticized as inadequate and communication as too slow and sluggish. This aspect has at least now been addressed by the authorities through the crisis and a measurement system has been installed that measures quality controls in real time. This has now been proven successful in the second incident. But the issues of supply and aging infrastructure plus seemingly sluggish communication with the public still hover over the provision of life’s most important source: water.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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