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From the archives

Mercury Rising

When it comes to climate change, Canada’s all talk

Drug Deals

How to shift policy toward universal pharmacare

The Other Side of “Irish Eyes”

Brian Mulroney abroad and at home

The Poisoned Well

Oil and water don’t mix

David Venn

I smelled fuel in my tap water eight days after a few people posted on the Iqaluit PSA Facebook page that something was wrong. It was a Sunday afternoon in early October, and I was getting ready for a two-hour hike along the Apex Trail. As I filled my Nalgene bottle, I caught a distinct, nauseating odour. A rush of anxiety came over me. I thought of my friends who had been sick for days but couldn’t figure out why. I thought of the headaches I’d been having. I thought back to every sip of water I had taken over the past two weeks, to the pizza dough I had made, to the vegetables I had steamed. I thought back to the showers I had taken and the clothes I had washed. And to the puppy I had dog-sat: a lovable mongrel who would not take a single lick from the bowl I put out for him.

Two days later, on the evening when workers located an underground tank at the treatment facility that’s near the diesel power plant — a tank that reeked of petroleum — the city called a special council meeting to declare a state of emergency. Almost as soon as the news broke, grocery stores sold out of bottled water, and residents began driving to the Sylvia Grinnell River, which runs through the territorial park by the airport. That same night, the city set up two filling stations next to the Arctic Winter Games Arena, but Iqalummiut were left waiting in line for hours. Then the stores sold out of jugs.

Within a few days, the territorial government flew in 80,000 litres of bottled water from down south, and companies that operate in the region began directing resources to help solve the problem. Eventually, the city started handing out free buckets at the river, and it put together a volunteer program to deliver water to those who couldn’t collect their own.

There have been gaps in the response, as well as in the available information. City and territorial communications departments have sent out news releases, but they’ve also been slower than usual in responding to questions. For two weeks in a row, press conferences were scheduled for five o’clock on Fridays. At first, I just assumed officials were busy and lacked time; then I grew suspicious that they were attempting to bury the details over the weekend. During the first of those press conferences, Nunavut’s chief public health officer, Michael Patterson, told us that the contamination was likely from diesel or kerosene, but, he said, there was no evidence that carcinogens like benzene had “been present in Iqaluit’s water system.” The next week, territorial officials released test results from the contaminated tank; these showed that there was 600 times more benzene than the maximum set by Ottawa. Not surprisingly, the various infographics we’ve been given at the pressers have been criticized by two University of Toronto professors, who say they lack sufficient information to be useful.

At first, the city told us the water was still safe to drink and that all tests met national standards. But it hadn’t yet received results from the hydrocarbon tests, and those eventually helped explain what people were smelling. What’s more, the crucial press release that the government of Nunavut issued — the one that finally told people to stop drinking the water — came out more than five hours after the mayor tweeted he was about to meet with territorial officials. How many people continued to turn on their taps in the meantime?

Even a month into the water advisory, we still have not been told what, exactly, we consumed earlier this year or for how long. Some are more concerned than others, but I’ve personally been turning to the river for most things. Although officials said most adults could continue using the shower, they discouraged infants and pregnant women from doing so. They also said the tap water was fine for doing the dishes, but I don’t want traces of kerosene near my lips ever again. So I pretty quickly developed a system, which added a lot more time to my chores but isn’t that difficult or unusual. After all, Nunavut communities are often placed under boil-water advisories; Whale Cove and Baker Lake, for example, experienced a few this summer.

Apparently, the contamination is connected to a long-ago fuel spill, but how did the fuel get in the tank, which inspectors say isn’t cracked? One can’t help but think climate change might be involved. Was this disruption all caused by thawing permafrost? If it was, will more people wake up to the larger crisis — the one that goes far beyond Iqaluit?

While I’ve been boiling river water in the two pots that haven’t left my stove in weeks, I’ve mostly been thinking about Don DeLillo’s White Noise, where the protagonist, Jack Gladney, is exposed to a toxic cloud that experts tell him will be in his system for thirty years. Unfortunately, they add, they’ll have to wait fifteen years before they can give him more information about what the effects are. “The place was awash in noise,” Jack says, as he describes the possibility of infection while in a supermarket with his family. “And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside the range of human apprehension.”

The river will soon freeze over, and we’ve been told to go ahead and flush our pipes. Perhaps I’ve been too dramatic: the government says it isn’t concerned about our long-term health. Then again, the same people told us not to worry about our water.

David Venn is an assistant editor with the magazine. Previously, he reported for Nunatsiaq News from Iqaluit.

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