Burning issue: N.L. struggles to close ancient garbage incinerators
The teepee incinerator in the eastern Newfoundland town of Old Perlican exhales a potentially toxic mix into the air, one of more than 20 that will continue to do so next year despite a government promise to close them before Dec. 31.
For years, the conical steel structures have been the only means of waste disposal for thousands of residents in the province's rural communities. In that time they've burned all manner of garbage and emit potentially hazardous dioxins and furans.
Author Michael Winter, who accidentally fell into the Old Perlican incinerator and survived, says he's surprised the province continues to use them.
"It sort of feels like the Industrial Age," Winter said.
"I really hope something gets done. Pretty much nothing has changed since I fell in."
Winter slid down the gaping maw of the incinerator two years ago after he lost his footing while dumping roofing shingles off the back of a pickup truck.
He landed on a "burning pyre of everything" before leaping away from the fire and grabbing a plastic tub that hadn't melted yet to shield himself from the heat.
He crawled to nearby ventilation slits to breathe before men at the site broke open the cast-iron back door using a boulder. He estimates he was inside the oven for about five minutes.
"I wasn't going to burn to death. I was going to cook," he said.
As part of a broader waste management plan, the Newfoundland and Labrador government promised to phase out all incinerators before the end of the year because of environmental concerns. But it concedes that only three, possibly four, of the 25 remaining incinerators will be shut down before next year.
Infrastructure not yet in place
Municipal Affairs Minister Dave Denine said the infrastructure needed to divert trash from all incinerators to other landfills has not been set up yet.
"To say that the final solution is there? The answer is no," Denine said in an interview.
Don Burt, the mayor of this town of 675, said his community has been aware of the province's goal to close the incinerators since 2002 but still needs more time to come up with alternative arrangements for waste disposal.
"We know that it's a major source of pollution — particularly airborne toxins — and we understand the theory behind it that has to go," Burt said.
The incinerator takes in waste for 18 other communities between Trinity and Conception Bay in eastern Newfoundland.
A 2006 external report prepared for federal and provincial environment ministers concluded that the province is heavily dependent on incineration because of its terrain.
"Most small remote communities are situated on rocky outcrops and have few areas suitable for a landfill. Moreover, the local animals in these areas could present problems should raw waste be disposed in landfills," the report said.
Fogo Island in central Newfoundland ran into that very problem earlier this year. Thousands of rats infested its regional landfill after local politicians cancelled a plan to burn garbage because it was too expensive.
'Stuck in a trap'
But Aaron Freeman, a policy director with Environmental Defence, said costs also play a major role in discouraging municipalities from closing their incinerators.
"They're stuck in a trap. The economic incentive is to keep feeding the incinerator," Freeman said.
"We've got to overcome that for human health reasons and environmental reasons."
The provincial government does not keep information on the amount of waste incinerators burn, but Denine said he is concerned any time toxins are emitted into the atmosphere.
The incinerator in Old Perlican has been fuming for about 25 years. There is no public recycling program in the area, but there is a private recycling depot open two days a week.
Burt said he is hopeful that there will be a more environmentally friendly alternative for trash disposal within a year.
Winter said the province should put a stronger emphasis of cleaning out the incinerators if they're not going to be closed.
"If they're going to have them, they've got to have some kind of filters or some kind of scrubbers on those things, because it's just bad stuff that goes in there," he said.
"If they can't do that, they shouldn't have them."