Contamination at new dump could haunt city

Residents worried about city dumping waste on contaminated land

By NUNATSIAQ NEWS

JOHN THOMPSON

The City of Iqaluit plans to build its new dump this year on a site that’s believed to be contaminated, likely by waste buried by the U.S. military during the 1950s.

It’s a plan that could come back to haunt the city in years to come, warned Robert Eno, the Government of Nunavut’s manager of pollution control and air quality.

“You really don’t know what’s in there, and you could be assuming liability for something you don’t want,” Eno said at the continuation of a Nunavut Water Board hearing last week.

Eno told the water board that the city’s plan makes him “uncomfortable,” but stopped short of disagreeing with it, because no alternative site exists.

City officials hope that permafrost has creeped upwards through the ground and swallowed any spilled oil, metals and other contaminated waste, rendering it inert. But they have no proof this has happened, because no detailed study has been done on what’s beneath the ground.

That could also make it difficult in the future for the city to prove they didn’t put any contaminants in the ground themselves. That’s why Eno said the city could be stuck with cleaning up the whole mess in the future.

The current dump was never intended to be a permanent landfill. The city began using the West 40 site as a temporary dump in 1995, with the understanding that land to the north was contaminated and unfit for use.

Eleven years later, the same “temporary” dump is still in use, and nearly full. And the site prepared as a new landfill is the same contaminated site — across the road from the current dump — that the city was warned is unfit for use.

Since 2001, the city has used the contaminated site to store recyclable materials, hazardous waste, and resident Jim Little’s compost project. The area is now graded, fenced off and capped, in preparation for its role as the new dump.

The site also now holds sewage sludge, which is being carted from the city’s sewage treatment plant to a sand bed, where the city is trying to make compost.

This summer the city plans to spend $600,000 on digging ditches around both dump sites, to catch any contaminated runoff water. The city’s public works director, Mark Hall, said the runoff will be analyzed, then disposed of according to federal regulations.

But Iqaluit resident Sui-Ling Han, who spoke to the water board earlier this month, wants to know if sludge will spill from the contaminated site’s boundaries during this spring’s thaw, before ditches are dug.

And Iqaluit’s compost king, Jim Little, warned the water board that the city’s composting experiment requires a liner beneath the sand bed. Otherwise, the sludge will ooze into the porous ground.

The city chose not to address these concerns raised at the hearing, only offering the residents a polite thank-you for their input.

“I’ve been defused,” said Jim Little.

City officials say they plan to identify a new, permanent dump site in the next five years.

To make matters more complicated, no one seems to agree on who owns the contaminated land, making it difficult for the city, as a tenant, to get permission to use it.

That’s because the site appears to have been sold twice, to two different parties.

In 1971, the federal government transferred administration and control of the land to the territorial government of the time, the Northwest Territories.

But 20 years later, in 1991, Indian and Northern Affairs claimed that Transport Canada controlled the land in question. Confusion over who owns the land has continued ever since.

After much legal wrangling at the meeting, lawyers for INAC and the City of Iqaluit agreed to disagree on the question of ownership, and said it should not affect the application for a water license.

But both parties made it clear they weren’t interested in cleaning up the buried waste, and expect another level of government to assume responsibility instead.

This didn’t leave much hope for Keith Irving of the Iqaluit homeowners association, who said he doesn’t want to see the city stuck paying for studies and an eventual clean-up.

“We’re going to be paying lawyers for the next few decades,” he said.

The board will decide whether to grant a water license to the city in the next 30 days.

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