Northern mines' toxins a growing threat: report

Federal research says a loophole in environmental rules is allowing a growing number of unregulated waste incinerators to release extremely toxic chemicals onto the land and into the water at mines and exploration camps in the Arctic.

Federal research says a loophole in environmental rules is allowing a growing number of unregulated waste incinerators to release extremely toxic chemicals onto the land and into the water at mines and exploration camps in the Arctic.

Sediments in one lake near the Ekati diamond mine in the Northwest Territories already contain levels of highly carcinogenic dioxins and furans up to 10 times higher than those from an uncontaminated lake, says a government report.

The paper was published last month in the scientific journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management.

Other Environment Canada documents show dozens of energy, mining, research and exploration camps throughout Nunavut and the N.W.T. that use unregulated incinerators to dispose of waste. Those numbers are expected to grow with the increase in northern resource development.

But a crucial element of their environmental impact has been ignored.

Regulatory gap

"Air emissions in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut fall into a regulatory gap, unregulated by land-use permits and water licences," the research says.

"Following on this study's evidence linking incinerator emissions and lake beds, the 'missing licence condition' has been found."

One of the authors told The Canadian Press he was happy to discuss his findings. However, Environment Department communications staff later said in an email that an interview "was not possible."

Staff confirmed the study's findings in the email.

It's not the first time incinerator emissions in the North have been studied.

Environment Canada commissioned a report in 2007 that suggested dioxins and furans were being introduced into the northern environment in increasing amounts.

"Northern incineration is unregulated and is becoming a more pressing issue with the increase in mining and oil and gas activities," said that report, written by consultant Don Mackay.

"The incineration technology used varies greatly and these camps have the potential to be a significant source of dioxins and furans."

Could lead to 'substantial accumulations'

Mackay tried to assess that potential by using mathematical models. He concluded that modern incineration units with air pollution controls emit small amounts of dioxins and furans unlikely to cause problems. But open-barrel burning releases 368 times more of those toxins.

"Extensive, uncontrolled burning of wastes could result in substantial accumulations of dioxins and furans in the local ecosystem, some of which will persist for some 8½ years at levels approaching those considered to be of toxicological concern," he wrote.

But no one can say what methods are being used. And when it comes to dioxins and furans, the stakes are high.

Such chemicals are toxic at levels of trillionths of a gram. They also concentrate in plants and animals as they move up the food chain.

Mackay concluded that one good-sized serving of fish from an affected lake could hold anywhere from one-twentieth the safe daily level up to 116 times the tolerable daily intake.

Mackay also warned cold northern temperatures mean dioxins and furans don't dissipate as quickly, probably increasing their concentration by a factor of 10. As well, he said, those chemicals bond better to snow than rain, meaning that more of them are likely to be absorbed from the air to fall on lakes and land in the North.

"In most cases we're below the level that health agencies would (watch) for," said Mackay. "But we're getting there. And if you have more incinerators and more burning, you may well exceed those levels.

"You can be a little bit sloppy if there aren't too many. But if there's a considerable number of them, then you've got to do things in a much more controlled way."

New incinerator purchased

Mining giant BHP Billiton, which owns the Ekati mine, is working on its problem. A new incinerator has been purchased, although it isn't yet operating.

The Yellowknives Dene band, with representatives on Ekati's environmental monitoring agency, is aware of the issue.

But director of lands Todd Slack said that long-term concerns can get lost when a small band is dealing with a huge project. The environmental impact statement for a proposed De Beers diamond mine is 11,000 pages long.

"This isn't necessarily the highest priority," he said. "From a review perspective it can very well fall through the cracks. We only have so many resources to go around. It should fall to the regulators.

"I can't understand why we don't have significant guidelines attached to every development."

Fish and caribou from the area remain safe to eat, he said.

Confusing regulatory network in N.W.T.

Environmental regulation in the North is shared by a sometimes confusing network of federal, territorial and aboriginal organizations.

An Environment Canada spokesman said waste incineration is a territorial responsibility. But a spokeswoman for the N.W.T. Environment Department said the territory has no jurisdiction on Crown lands and that authority over incinerators remains with Ottawa and various land and water boards.

The federal government now attempts to get companies to upgrade their incinerators voluntarily. It has released a technical document outlining preferred methods, but can't compel that they be adopted.

In its recent response to the environmental impact statement for the massive Mary River iron mine proposed for Baffin Island, the department can only "recommend" the miner follow the document's "advice."

An Environment Canada spokesman told the Ekati monitoring agency last November that the department "now attempts to get incineration conditions added to land-use permits and water licences, but they have had more success in Nunavut than in the N.W.T."

Mackay suggests political will is lacking.

"My impression was that Environment Canada would dearly love to force everybody to do incineration in a proper, responsible manner. But I'm not sure that they get the political backing to do it.

"I think they're often constrained by their political masters."