Nunavut landfills a health, environment risk says study

A new study says Nunavut's community landfills are a hazard to human health and the environment.

Overhauls could cost millions per community

A family makes their way through the village of Pangnirtung, Nunavut on Sunday, May 31, 2009. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

A new study says Nunavut's local landfills are a hazard to human health and the environment.

Yellowknife-based consulting firm Arktis Solutions completed the report for the territorial government this summer. It was tabled in the Nunavut legislature this fall.

The report studied 14 landfills in the territory. It found most of the dumps are decades old, contaminated, and filled to capacity. The report also says not a single facility in the territory meets modern standards for waste management.

"Depending on the options, you're probably looking at between $10 million and $13 million per community."—Roy Green, Government of Nunavut

Only one in five had a fence to keep animals and people out. The landfills are also regularly set on fire to make room for more garbage.

Nowhere in Nunavut is the problem more acute than Pangnirtung.

Mountains surround the hamlet so there is nowhere to build a new landfill. The dump sits above the fiord and toxins leach downhill.

Like other communities, Pangnirtung routinely sets the dump on fire to make room. The smoke can interfere with planes landing or taking off.

Ron Mongeau, the hamlet’s senior administrative officer, says burning also sends carcinogenic smoke billowing into town.

"Depending on the weather patterns you've almost had to use your headlights in daylight in the community because of the thickness of the smoke," said Mongeau.

Mongeau says $1.5 million of federal gas tax money will go towards an incinerator which could be up and running in a year.

Report's recommendations costly

The report found almost all the communities felt their dumps posed health and safety risks. It recommends three options for waste management: construction of a modern, lined landfill and shipping hazardous waste south; burning waste using an incinerator or gasification; or sorting garbage — composting organics, sending recyclables and hazardous waste south and burying the rest. 

Armed with the fresh study, Nunavut officials say tackling the problem is a government priority.

Roy Green, with the Department of Community and Government Services, says the long-term plan is to overhaul the sites, but it will be pricey.

"Depending on the options, you're probably looking at between $10 and $13 million per community."

Money for municipal infrastructure is scarce, so Green says the government will take a practical approach in the short term.

"At this point, we're recommending as a short-term solution that garbage be sorted at the household level," he said.

Green’s department plans to put sea cans in place to store the sorted hazardous waste so that it does not get burned alongside paper and cardboard.

The government will also install fences to try and hold in the 8.5 cubic metres of garbage each person in Nunavut generates per year.