An oily plastic container at heart of Sachs Harbour water contamination this spring

·4 min read
About half of Sachs Harbour was under a do not consume water advisory for over a month, due to fuel contaminating a water delivery truck, although few details were provided on what led to the contamination.  (Inuvialuit Community Economic Development Organization - image credit)
About half of Sachs Harbour was under a do not consume water advisory for over a month, due to fuel contaminating a water delivery truck, although few details were provided on what led to the contamination. (Inuvialuit Community Economic Development Organization - image credit)

An oily container confused for a clean one is what left half of Sachs Harbour, N.W.T., without usable tap water for a month this past spring, according to government emails obtained by CBC.

On March 23, a do not consume advisory was issued from the territory's chief environmental health officer after the smell of fuel and an oily sheen was found in water deliveries, according to a news release at the time.

Affected buildings included the health centre, public housing and the RCMP detachment and barracks as well as several residential units.

From the day a do not consume advisory was issued to the day it was rescinded on April 22, few details on the cause, response and extent of the contamination that affected the Beaufort Delta community were released.

At the time, calls from CBC News to the hamlet office, mayor and senior administrative officer (SAO) were not returned.

But emails obtained in an access to information request show as much as half of the community — 14 units — were affected by the contaminated water.

But there was initial fear the entire hamlet, of just over 100, was going to be affected.

"So thankfully it's only half the town," the SAO (who's name was redacted) wrote in an email to Shawn Hardy, a territorial environmental health officer, on March 23.

'Laundry smelled like fuel' 

The contamination was first discovered when residents began reporting a fuel smell coming from their water on March 21, the SAO wrote to Hardy. Some even discovered a yellow film at the top of their water tank.

"Also on Monday evening another household member stated her laundry smelled like fuel," the email reads.

Tests on the water truck as well as several homes and buildings in the affected area were found to have fuel in the water supply.

The incident came just months after the City of Iqaluit had to declare an emergency due to fuel-contaminated drinking water last October.

The cause in Sachs Harbour, however, was determined to likely be the result of a plastic container mix-up, according to an email from the SAO.

An individual (whose name is redacted) was working on a furnace that had run out of fuel.

When this happens, the line needs to be "bled" meaning the remaining old oil is cleared out of it with a container.

The container used to clear out the old oil from the furnace was placed in a sink with other plastic containers.

Hamlet of Sachs Harbour
Hamlet of Sachs Harbour

Either another individual or the same one "thought it [the container] was clean and used it" on the water delivery truck vessel, the SAO's email reads.

It's unclear how the container was used with the water delivery truck.

Back up truck had to be used post-discovery of contamination

Every house and building that received water from the truck on March 21, needed to have their water tanks drained and cleaned.

The hamlet hired contractors to clean the water tanks.

Once it was determined the water truck vessel was contaminated, the hamlet was forced to find another way to deliver water to the unaffected houses .

The backup truck, it turned out, was frozen and needed to thaw out in a garage before it could be used.

"Community has only one water truck in operation (they have one on standby, but SAO will confirm if it can be operated)," reads an email from Hardy on March 23.

A notice went out from the chief public health officer on March 25, that the backup truck was cleared to begin delivering water.

Showers and eye irritation

Showers were another concern.

The official advice at the time was that children and toddlers should not shower and that adults should keep showers short and avoid ingesting any water.

But according to an email sent by Hardy on March 28, there were some reports of residents using showers in affected units who were experiencing "eye irritation."

In a document that outlines a timeline of events, Hardy writes that he advised these members to seek immediate attention from a health practitioner.

The N.W.T. Housing Corporation ended up lending one of its housing units, undergoing renovations, to be used as a place for those affected to shower at.

There were complaints of the situation on social media, but anyone CBC News reached out to was reluctant to talk.

However, emails do show some frustration, including from a hamlet councillor.

According to an email from the SAO, the councillor showed up at their office and said "people are getting sick and why is nothing being done right away."

He reportedly asked why an emergency meeting wasn't held when Hardy and other government officials were visiting the community.

According to the email, the councillor wanted to know why all units weren't tested for fuel spills, why the hamlet dropped "the ball on this" and that he wants answers.

CBC News reached out to the SAO on Tuesday, but was told they were not available to discuss the incident.

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