Pang residents all choked up over trash fire
'It smelled like a dump, like chemicals'
On July 11, thick, dark smoke billowed up from Pangnirtung's dump, drifting above its water reservoir, over the community and out into Cumberland Sound.
To Billy Etooangat, who was boating in Cumberland Sound, it looked as if an atomic bomb had exploded over his community, leaving a slow-moving mushroom cloud in its wake.
"It was like fog, and it wasn't even natural," he said. "I smelled it from at least 10 miles away. It smelled like a dump, like chemicals."
Etooangat, a hamlet councillor, says open burns are just about the only way to keep dump trash from blowing all over town.
Still, he worries about the impact of the acrid smoke on the community's water reservoir, the fiord and nearby Auyuittuq National Park.
"It's not healthy. We have to find an immediate solution," Etooangat said. "We fish by the shore line. People who go berry picking across the fiord from Pang and that should be a concern with all the contaminants landing on the ground."
CB radios belonging to other boaters enjoying the calm weather carried news of the cloud of smoke. But the 1,600 residents of Pangnirtung who were in town on July 11 couldn't miss seeing the smoke floating overhead.
The smoke was so dark in the upper section of town that drivers had to turn on their headlights to see where they were going.
The smoke, caused by the slow and incomplete burning of waste, such as metal and plastic, likely contained materials that probably shouldn't be burned at all – especially at low temperatures.
This kind of smoke can make it difficult for children, the elderly, the handicapped and anyone with respiratory problems to breathe, but even more troubling, it also releases substances like dioxins which, over the long term, can lead to cancer or cause genetic damage.
"The only filters in the community for this dioxin-laden smoke are peoples' lungs. No wonder Inuit children have the worst lung health in the world," said resident Nedd Kenney, who was so alarmed by the smoke that day he headed out with his camera to take photos.
The following week, Kenney dashed off emails to officials. In one, he highlighted the contradiction between open dump burns, which are common practice at dumps across the territory, and an introductory statement on Nunavut Tourism's web site that says "Nunavut is a name that reflects the simple purity of this spectacular Arctic landscape."
Kenney wants Nunavut to adopt the Environment Canada Air Quality Health Index, which looks at levels of pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and fine and coarse particulate matter in the air.
When Environment Canada determines levels are high, warnings go out to the at-risk population which includes people with respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, young children, the elderly and people who are frequently active outdoors.
"I think Environment Canada should measure the AQHI to get a better understanding of what is in the community air during and after a dump burn," Kenney said.
According to Pangnritung's senior administrative officer, Ron Mongeau, the hamlet started the July 11 fire as a regular controlled burn, which was fanned by rising wind – although some say kids also helped spread the fire.
The local fire brigade was finally called in to douse the flames, which covered half the dump.
Trash is generally burned twice a month, Mongeau says, because burning is the "only logical" way to keep the volume down.
"We're stuck with the infrastructure we have and burning is the only option we have," he said. "But in Pangnirtung we are known for quickly-changing winds and for winds that can blow in three different directions at the same time – and of course this generally happens as soon as we start a dump fire."
Mongeau says the best long-term solution to dealing with solid waste in the community would be an incinerator.
An incinerator was built in Pangnirtung in the 1980s – but a source who used to work for the Northwest Territories' environment department said it was wrecked by attempts to burn animal carcasses.
Mongeau, who was then the executive director of the Baffin Regional Council, disputes this, saying the incinerator was abandoned due to the expense and difficulty of its operation.
But smoke from the dump in Pangnirtung isn't the only problem. In the late 1980s researchers found heavy metals, including lead, in fiord waters downhill from the dump.
Mongeau says the hamlet is working with the Government of Nunavut to see if the best solution is to move the dump, install a more high-tech incinerator or try some other solution, such as composting or using a compactor to press the solid waste from the sewage treatment plant – and possibly the fish plant – into blocks.
A $500,000 study by the Department of Community and Government Services on waste management is in the works. Consultants and GN officials will visit Pangnirtung July 31 to discuss solid waste management and sewage disposal in the community.
Pangnirtung, which doesn't have a sewage lagoon, was burning sludge and fish guts at the dump until recently. Now it's buried in trenches.
Mongeau says he's committed to finding a long-term solution for the dump because "I live in this community too and I don't like this kind of smoke coming over my house."