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World's most expensive plumbing job? Military divers become plumbers in Arctic

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A Ranger scout travels through rough sea ice between CFS Alert and the Eureka Weather Station March 28, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bob Weber

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A Ranger scout travels through rough sea ice between CFS Alert and the Eureka Weather Station March 28, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bob Weber

OTTAWA - Expensive house calls by plumbers can be nerve-racking for homeowners, but this plumbing job in Canada's high Arctic is one for the record books.

Broken water pumps at CFS Alert triggered an 11,000-kilometre house call this winter by an elite squad of navy divers from Halifax.

The 10-day job in the frozen, permanent darkness of an Arctic winter required arduous drilling through ice more than a metre thick, and then a robot submarine to survey the damage.

In the end, the crack diver-plumber team was able to replace one broken pump, but not a second backup pump, the repair of which will have to wait for warmer temperatures in the summer.

CFS Alert, near the North Pole, draws its drinking water from nearby Upper Dumbell Lake to a water-treatment plant serving the station's 75 soldiers and workers.

The military facility has three water pumps, including two backups, and was left vulnerable when both backups failed. The pumps also provide water for firefighting.

Military spokesman Maj. James Simiana says the nine-member dive team was paid temporary duty costs of $6,900 for the Feb. 12-22 mission, in addition to their regular pay.

They also hitched rides on previously scheduled Hercules transport flights from Halifax to Trenton, Ont., and then the additional 4,300 kilometres from Trenton to Alert.

The team "flew on a routine resupply flight from Trenton to Alert, which means there's no incremental cost ... as we maximized the use of available space onboard the aircraft," Simiana said. The divers found seating space among the cargo.

Round trips on scheduled Hercules flights between Halifax, Trenton and Alert cost the military $85,000, but the amount had already been budgeted.

"Once diving operations commenced, the divers were able to remove and replace pump one without difficulty," Simiana said. "Several attempts were made to replace pump two, but it proved to be caught up inside the casing above the waterline."

CFS Alert is the world's northernmost permanently inhabited community. It's located on the tip of Ellesmere Island, a military signals listening post and weather station that's closer to Moscow than Ottawa.

Now largely operated by Environment Canada, the hardship post housed more than 200 people at the height of the Cold War. The average daily temperature in February is minus 33 degrees C.

As for the record books, the CFS Alert plumbing bill pales next to a case at the U.S. Pentagon.

In 2007, a plumbing-supply house charged the American military almost US$1 million for two 19-cent washers and US$446,000 for an elbow pipe worth about $8.75. The firm's co-owner later pleaded guilty to fraud.

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