Saskatchewan·Special Report

Kindersley landfill fire a wake-up call for Saskatchewan

CBC's iTeam has discovered many rural landfills are not properly maintained and there is little follow-up after problems are found.

Landfill rules often broken in rural areas

A fire at the Kindersley landfill in October 2013 underlined the importance of properly maintaining such facilities. (Taylor Rocca via Instagram)

A recent state of emergency in Kindersley is forcing governments across Saskatchewan to pay closer attention to how they manage landfills.

On the night of Oct. 7, 2013, the Kindersley landfill caught fire. It quickly became out of control.

The wind was blowing the flames toward a trailer court on the other side of the street.

Kindersley's town manager, Bernie Morton, said an evacuation plan was put in place.

"It was that quick action that night with some luck from mother nature that prevented this from being a landfill to being a major community fire," said Morton.

The next morning Christina Mock, who lives in the trailer court, woke up to soot-covered vehicles and potentially dangerous smoke.

"The next couple days it was actually pretty bad," Mock explained. "We were told to basically stay in our house. And if it got any worse we were supposed to leave."

We could have been doing things better.- John Enns-Wind, Mayor of Kindersley

The cause of the fire is still under investigation but the mayor of Kindersley, John Enns-Wind, already admitted the town is partly at fault.

"I think everyone has a mea culpa in this,” said Enns-Wind. “We could have been doing things better."

Critical landfill inspection report

Almost two months prior to the landfill fire an inspector from the Ministry of Environment visited the facility and issued a critical report.

Landfill operators are required to regularly cover garbage piles with dirt and compact it.

The report said "this process is behind. Numerous bales of waste piled up and not buried.”

"This should be a priority and effort should be to reduce the bales prior to winter,” the report continued.

It also urged the town to reduce the piles of wood on site.

Who wants to invest in a landfill? It's the dump.- John Enns-Wind, Mayor of Kindersley

The mayor said the town was in the midst of complying when the fire started.

He admitted the town could have been more diligent and made the landfill a bigger priority.

"Who wants to invest in a landfill? It's the dump,” said John Enns-Wind.

But in light of this crisis, the mayor arrived at a new conclusion.

“Fundamentally it's an investment for the well-being of our community."

He said this fire has been a wake-up call for municipalities across Saskatchewan, and for the provincial government as well.

Hundreds of critical landfill reports

An online database contains all inspection reports for more than 450 landfills and garbage transfer stations the provincial government oversees.

Right now there are three inspectors and one manager responsible for ensuring these facilities are following the rules.

But according to inspection reports many landfills fail to fully comply.

The infractions range from incomplete paperwork and improper signage to unauthorized burning or a failure to properly bury garbage.

For example, the most recent inspection of the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation landfill, from July 2012, said the dump lacks any security or supervision.

"Garbage in the surrounding forest is not being collected,” the report said. “Garbage at the front of the site is becoming more of a problem each passing year.”

The most recent inspection of MacNutt's landfill was November 2010. It found the garbage there had never been covered or compacted and that "many non-authorized materials were burnt" on site. The inspector threatened enforcement action but there is no evidence that there has been an inspection in three years.

Province adopts tighter monitoring standards

The ministry of environment says over the past year it has started taking landfill inspections more seriously.

Last fall, for the first time, it commissioned inspectors who are solely responsible for monitoring landfills.

Landfills across rural Saskatchewan must follow a number of provincial environmental regulations. (CBC)

Prior to that, provincial inspectors were also tasked with water and wastewater inspections, and that took much of their time.

In addition, this April the province started requiring annual inspections of large landfills and inspections every three years for smaller facilities.

The ministry has also confirmed to CBC's iTeam that the provincial auditor is reviewing the way the ministry of environment monitors its landfill operations.

Her report has been submitted to the province and will be made public in December.

Fire hurting Kindersley's economy

Following the fire, the ministry of environment has placed restrictions on Kindersley's landfill.

It is now allowed to receive residential garbage only from residents of Kindersley and the RM of Kindersley.

The ministry says it must not receive trash from commercial or industrial sources or from other neighbouring communities.

This is already causing significant problems.

Pro-Plus Sales and Rentals was forced to find another place to empty the garbage bins it rents to businesses.

Jennifer Ellarma is a company spokesperson. She said she's spent hours working the phones trying to find another landfill but Kindersley's fire has everyone spooked.

"So we're getting to a place where other communities are saying...’we can’t take your waste because we could see the same thing happening to us into the future,’” said Ellarma.

It absolutely stifles our growth- Jennifer Ellarma, Pro-Plus Sales and Rentals

So Pro-Plus is hauling people's garbage two and a half hours away, to the landfill in North Battleford, at an extra cost of $1200 a load.

"It absolutely stifles our growth,” she added. “How can we maintain a relationship when you don't know what you can offer people in the future?"

This hotel under construction can no longer send its waste to the Kindersley landfill, forcing the contractor to simply pile it up and put a fence around it. (Geoff Leo/CBC)

A construction crew building a new hotel in town has been forced to pile trash in front of the hotel with a makeshift fence around it.

"They won't even bring us the bins now. So what do we do?" wondered construction supervisor Kevin Bourbonnie. "I don't know. We're kind of stuck."

Kindersley works on a long-term plan

By order of the province, Kindersley's dump will be shut down in 18 months. Before the fire, the landfill had five years of life remaining.

That has forced the town to speed up the search for an alternative.

It is working with 35 other municipalities in the area, replacing some smaller rural dumps with a centrally located regional landfill.

Mayor John Enns-Wind said the landfill fire has done some good when it comes to planning for the future.

"There's a new sense of urgency since our fire,” he said.

Planning for the project is in the early stages and he's hopeful that the provincial government may come forward with financial help as the project takes shape.

Geoff Leo