Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Nunavut June 10, 2014 - 9:03 am

Unlike Iqaluit, Pangnirtung burns waste by necessity

Smoke from controlled burns draw few questions in Nunavut’s hamlets

The Hamlet of Pangnirtung continues to burn garbage at its landfill, which is long overdue for replacement. (FILE PHOTO)
The Hamlet of Pangnirtung continues to burn garbage at its landfill, which is long overdue for replacement. (FILE PHOTO)

Smoke from Iqaluit’s burning garbage dump has raised concerns about air quality in the territorial capital.

Yet the “controlled burning” of garbage has long been the norm in Pangnirtung — Iqaluit’s second-closest neighbouring community — where it produces similar foul-smelling smoke.

The former mayor of Pangnirtung, Sakiasie Sowdlooapik, who led the hamlet from 2010 to 2013, says smoke from Iqaluit’s landfill fire reminds him of smaller-scale plumes generated by controlled burns in his own community.

At the end of a visit to the City of Iqaluit, “when I checked out from the hotel, two days ago — it was smelling pretty bad,” Sowdlooapik told Nunatsiaq News June 9.

That smell is the same thing Pangnirtung residents often experience, he said.

Pangnirtung’s landfill exceeded its capacity several years ago, leaving the hamlet with no choice but to burn garbage.

“Every community, I think, has been notified by some sort of government body not to burn,” said Sowdlooapik.

“But without controlled burns, what are you going to do?”

Sowdlooapik noted that burning “is very common everywhere else in small communities of Nunavut,” largely because the government “is very lazy” about investing in technologies to reduce waste.

The hamlet’s population is roughly one-fifth of Iqaluit’s. Pangnirtung’s landfill takes on all forms of waste generated by its 1,700 residents, and the dump continues to grow.

“Relocating it won’t solve anything, because it’s just going to take the problem somewhere else,” he said. “It’s had its day. It’s way too small now.”

Like Iqaluit’s landfill, Pangnirtung’s garbage dump is past-due for replacement. Nunavut’s communities ultimately rely on federal funding to establish new landfills, which has been slow to arrive.

During Sowdlooapik’s term as mayor, Pangnirtung would carry out controlled burns “almost every second day,” he said.

Burns were timed to take place when winds could carry smoke out of the community, he said, which is built on a small plain of land within a fiord.

Contacted by Nunatsiaq News June 9, the hamlet office confirmed the municipality still burns garbage, but could not immediately say whether its burning policies have changed since last December, when Sowdlooapik’s term as mayor expired.

An attempt to adopt gasification technology, which breaks down waste without releasing pollution, fell flat during Sowdlooapik’s term as mayor.

“The proposal died because the government never followed up,” he said, referring to the territorial and federal governments.

Had the plan passed, “we would have stopped burning the dump two years ago.”

Sowdlooapik’s term was marked by one major change to the dump: the segregation of waste by type, which created more space in the dump, and helped keep from burning more hazardous materials.

Even so, burning continues, and Sowdlooapik admits “it’s not healthy to people with asthma, babies, or elderly residents in the community.”

“I met with nurses every month when I was mayor, to make sure this is not getting to be too much of a concern.”

But, he added, “when the wind direction changed, it all goes back to the houses.

“You can’t even open the windows for fresh air when the dump is burning, and it’s not windy from the sound,” he said, referring to winds blowing off the open seas of Cumberland Sound.

Ablaze since May 20, Iqaluit’s dump fire generates smoke that blows into the city with westerly winds.

At least three schools have cancelled classes on different occasions, when winds carried smoke onto their grounds and into their ventilation systems.

In Pangnirtung, foul-smelling smoke caused concern at the community’s elementary school and high school only twice since the start of 2013, according to regional school authorities.

But neither of those cases — which occurred in May and October of 2013 — resulted in school closures.

“Any kind of fluctuation in air quality that lowers your ability to breathe easily is an issue for certain people with medical conditions,” said Wende Halonen, communications manager for the Department of Education.

Authorities at both schools allowed “a few” students with asthma and other conditions to go home for the day, Halonen said.

On days like that, however, children may not be much better off at home than in school, given the compact size of the community.

In Pangnirtung, as in Iqaluit, the precise health hazards of smoke from garbage burns are not known.

Complaints about the smoke in Iqaluit, however, have drawn the attention of Environment Canada and Health Canada. Tom Sammurtok, territorial minister of community and government services, reported June 9 in Nunavut’s legislative assembly that both federal agencies sent personnel to the city to take measurements of toxic compounds in the air on June 7 and 8.

To avoid unknown health hazards altogether, waste reduction “should really be a priority for the whole municipality’s operation,” Sowdlooapik said.

Unlike Iqaluit, none of Nunavut’s other communities have their own taxes to draw on to pay for such projects – which leaves them reliant on the federal and territorial governments.

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