A dump fire that has been burning for nearly four months in the remote northern Canadian city of Iqaluit has finally been extinguished. The “Dumpcano” as it has been known locally has been spewing toxic fumes into the town’s air, forcing residents indoors over the summer months due to the short- and long-term health risks of the smoke. The fire began when garbage in the four-story pile spontaneously combusted, forming a molten core that at times burned at temperatures of 500 degrees Celsius. The incident has highlighted the difficulties of managing waste materials in an environment that is frozen solid for around nine months of the year.
The fire began on 20 May, 2014. At first, firefighters thought the blaze was near the surface of the garbage heap, but Iqaluit Fire Chief Luc Grandmaison said they soon discovered it was “like a volcano underneath that pile.” The heat from the decomposition of garbage resting on an impenetrable bed of permafrost ignited combustible materials and was liquefying everything in the unseparated pile of waste. That night the city council decided to let the fire burn itself out as it was too difficult for local firefighters to extinguish. But by 22 May, authorities were already advising residents to stay sealed indoors if there was smoke present to avoid toxic materials in the smoke, especially for those suffering from asthma or emphysema. After some schools had been forced to close in early June, the city council reversed its decision and asked the Fire Chief to come up with a plan to put out the fire.
Several plans were proposed to extinguish the blaze, one of which was estimated to cost $4.5 million. After the Nunavut provincial government had refused a request for financial assistance, a plan to extinguish the fire with the aid of outside contractors was finally confirmed to start on 27 August. Meanwhile, health warnings had been extended to all women of “childbearing age” after the Nunavut government released air quality test results that showed levels of dioxins and furans were above the Ontario standard. Later, in a 29 August release, the provincial government stated: “People with heart or lung disease, asthma, the elderly, children, pregnant women and women who may become pregnant should limit their exposure to dump fire smoke. This can be done by staying indoors with the doors and windows closed, and with air exchangers set to recirculate indoor air or turned off. Reduce or reschedule outdoor physical activity. People should seek medical attention if they have symptoms such as trouble breathing or tightness in the chest.” Residents wryly noted that these warnings covered “a lot of people.”
With the fire confirmed extinguished on 16 September after a 17-day battle, authorities and residents are acknowledging the garbage management lessons learned from the experience. Staff at the dump will undergo training on sorting combustible, recyclable and toxic materials from the garbage, including mattresses, tires, batteries and large pieces of steel and glass. A public education campaign will also begin to make sure residents inform dump staff of any materials that require separation when they drop off garbage. But in a remote environment where exporting waste is financially out of the question and garbage dumps sit on top of permafrost, the worldwide issue of dealing with post-consumer waste has literally been in Iqaluit’s face.
Photos by Iqalummiut for Action via Facebook