Voted into office on Tuesday after a four-year absence, Nunakput MLA-elect Jackie Jacobson said he plans to address immediate concerns about substandard aviation fuel which hampered campaigning for local candidates.
"We have no fuel in our communities for aircraft, for refueling," he told Cabin Radio following his election win. Jacobson said the length of time taken to solve the issue "is really, really concerning."
Jacobson was the Nunakput MLA from 2007 to 2015 and Speaker of the House for his second term. He was defeated by Herb Nakimayak in 2015 but ousted Nakimayak in this week's vote.
Ken Dalton, the general manager of Aklak Air, said aircraft fuel supply has been a concern since early September. He was told a shipment of fuel had not passed territorial government tests and therefore could not be sold to local airlines.
The NWT government said a fuel test named the water separation characteristic – which measures surfactants, or compounds that lower the tension between two liquids – came back lower than expected, necessitating treatment.
Aklak Air's seven aircraft serve the Nunakput fly-in communities of Sachs Harbour, Paulatuk, and Ulukhaktok, as well as a seasonal route to Fort McPherson and charter flights.
Dalton said aircraft have had to be rerouted during the fuel shortage. A round-trip route from Inuvik, touching down in Sachs Harbour and Ulukhaktok, had to be cancelled. Instead, the company sent separate planes to each community and the connection between the two was severed. The airline has had to dispatch additional cargo flights.
Fewer passengers and cargo were able to fit on each flight, said Dalton, as the airline has had to carry full fuel loads.
The fuel issues were reported to have hampered several candidates' campaigning in the region. Jacobson said he wasn't able to go to Sachs Harbour as a result.
Dalton said the airline is "eating" additional costs during the shortage to avoid raising its rates. The company has yet to fully tally how much the shortage has cost, nor is it clear whether Aklak Air will seek compensation from the NWT government.
A spokesperson for the territory's Department of Infrastructure said fuel in Ulukhaktok has been treated and is now fully available, fuel in Sachs Harbour has also been treated and is awaiting test results before the all-clear is given, and work is now ongoing to treat fuel in Paulatuk.
Paulatuk says it has enough emergency fuel stored – 12 flights' worth – to provide for emergency needs like medevacs.
"I think that's why there hasn't been much of an outcry," Paulatuk's mayor, Ray Ruben Sr, said. "Had we had no reserve fuel for emergencies, then we would have been probably at a higher level of concern."
The solution, Ruben said, lies in the delivery process. He thinks more monitoring is needed at different points in the transfer of fuel products.
A file photo of Sachs Harbour. Leslie Philipp/Wikimedia
"Moving from one tank to another, I guess the natural thing would be to make sure that both tanks are free of contamination," he said. "It's got to come, more monitoring between the transporting of that product to our location here."
Former Nunakput MLA Nakimayak, who received 143 votes to Jacobson's 231, agreed there needs to be "quality control and quality assurance" in the delivery process.
"We need to catch that before there are some major accidents in our region," he told Cabin Radio earlier this month.
Greg Hanna, a spokesperson for the department, said: "At this point, an investigation has not been completed as to why or how this situation occurred. The focus right now is to remediate the fuel so normal aviation operations can resume in the three affected communities, after which an investigation will take place."
Hanna noted the three communities are set to receive federal funding for expanded and improved fuel storage facilities. He said that work will reduce reliance on individual fuel deliveries.
'Starting the foundation'
Beyond the fuel shortage, Jacobson's priorities for the four years ahead are long-term care within communities for Elders and developing relationships with Nunakput's local leaders.
"Working with them and getting their want list, what we need for the communities. And just starting the foundation of our partnerships," he told Cabin Radio.
Jacobson will be one of the most experienced MLAs in the Legislative Assembly. He is not seeking the position of premier but hopes for a seat in cabinet.
"I'm not planning to run for premier, I'll make that clear. All I want to do is I want to be put into a position to help my people," he said.