It was a story that made national headlines. On October 12th, 2021, the City of Iqaluit declared a state of emergency upon discovering fuel-like products in the treated water system. This resulted in the issuance of a Do Not Consume water quality advisory that affected over 8,000 residents of the territory’s capitol city.
The do-not-consume order meant that the community could not drink the water from the taps which quickly caused serious concerns. Bottled water resources available for sale at stores within the city dried up quickly, and getting more shipped in wasn’t an easy solution given the remote location. Iqaluit’s lone hospital, Qikiqtani General Hospital, cancelled surgeries due to concerns about the quality of the tap water for their instrument sterilization systems.
The City was quick to react to the situation. Filling stations were set up for residents to access water resources from the nearby Sylvia Grinnel River. The territorial government purchased tens of thousands of litres of bottled water to be given out in the community. The Canadian Armed Forces arrived in the City with a water purification system to provide supplemental water. It was a multi-faceted effort to ensure that the impact to the community would be minimized as much as possible.
On the Ground in Iqaluit
WSP was called to the scene in early October to assist the City in identifying the source of the contamination and implementing immediate response measures to protect the public from potentially unsafe water.
This was not the first time the WSP team was called to Iqaluit for an emergency response. In 2018, the City of Iqaluit declared a state of emergency due to a rapidly depleting raw water source. Our team investigated alternative water supplies and supplemental treatment technologies to provide additional potable water to residents. The team worked to build and implement a containerized reverse osmosis system that would draw water from Frobisher Bay.
However, the situation in 2021 was very different. It required a multi-disciplinary team of engineers, specialists, public works personnel, indigenous stakeholder groups, community volunteers, and multiple levels of the government to come together to ensure the ongoing safety of the public.
The contamination was first observed on October 12th in the North Clearwell (one of multiple below-ground treated water storage tanks). Working remotely with City Staff, the team were successfully able to isolate the North Clearwell, empty it out, and inspect the tank. However, there were no obvious cracks in the tanks and no evidence as to the source of the contamination. A number of questions remained, including how the fuel entered the tank, and what were the long-term impacts on the system.
We arrived on October 19th to respond to these questions. During the investigation, we discovered what has become known as the “Void” – the air space between the water treatment plant and exposed bedrock. From within the Void, we located a historic underground fuel storage tank adjacent to the North Clearwell, with evidence that the contents had been discharged into the void over time. Light hydrocarbons were wicking into the water tank through the concrete, causing the tank’s contents to become contaminated. Working quickly with the City, we were able to identify the contamination pathway into the water treatment system and sever that pathway on October 24th.
Following the discovery, a series of additional actions were also taken. We removed the historic tank, and cleaned the void. At the same time, a bypass system was put in place to avoid pulling water from the impacted area until comprehensive cleaning could take place. The City also installed and calibrated the S::CAN online monitoring system.
These measures allowed us to fully address the root cause of the contamination, and put effective measures in place to restore water services that meet federal health guidelines. On December 10th, Nunavut health officials lifted Iqaluit’s Do Not Consume order.
A New Issue Emerges
In mid-January, a new crisis emerged. This time, the City’s online monitoring system detected two instances where trace amounts of fuel had entered the water system.
We returned to Iqaluit to immediately identify the source of this new issue. We began commencing a series of below-ground tank inspections to try and determine where the new fuel source had come from.
In our inspections, we performed detailed analyses of both the material and structural elements of the tanks and, in doing so, identified an inconsistency in the quality of wall construction. Investigation of one of the tanks, known as the Pumping Chamber, revealed a substantial amount of a tar-like substance oozing out of one of the walls. We were able to identify the substance, through forensic fingerprint analysis and old construction photos, as Waterstop-RX, which was not installed to manufacturer specifications as noted through the photos.
We were able to determine that a concentration of the Waterstop-RX material burst through the tank wall, contaminating the water inside and leading to the fuel issue. A bypass system was installed that rerouted the drinking water around all the below ground concrete tanks while maintaining UV and Chlorine disinfection. The bypass provides safe drinking water to the city and avoids further impacts to the drinking water. The bypass will remain in place until the tank remediation work is complete.
In the midst of the water crisis, the City applied for and was successful in securing funds from the federal government for a new long-term water supply. With the second crisis now over, and thanks to the funding commitment, the local government and its partners are working together to secure a plan for a new water reservoir for the community which will provide a long term reliable and sustainable water source for the community.