City of Iqaluit will spend $3.3 million of its own money to douse dumpcano
“There’s no Leona, there’s no Taptuna trying to help us out”
Residents of Iqaluit might think otherwise, but the Government of Nunavut and the Government of Canada say the city’s dump fire is not a health or environmental emergency — and the city alone must cover all the costs of putting it out.
City council resolved at a special meeting, Aug. 1, that they will do just that, at a cost of $3.3 million or more.
“I am quite disappointed with the Government of Nunavut, as well as the Government of Canada,” long-time city councillor Joanasie Akumalik said during the meeting.
“There’s no Leona, there’s no Taptuna trying to help us out,” he said, referring to Nunavut’s MP and the federal environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq, and Peter Taptuna, the premier of Nunavut.
“I guess everyone in this room is disappointed. We’re left holding the bag, and it’s going to cost money.”
The city’s next step will be to pull together the $3.3 million needed to put out the fire, which has burned since May 20 in a single pile four stories high, covering an area the size of a football field.
The sum will cover all expenses related to a plan council passed July 22, which involves dousing the smouldering pile with salt water from Frobisher Bay over a period of 20 days.
City administration and city council will do this without any guarantee of success from the fire chief, who promised only that the plan will throw up enormous amounts of smoke.
“Once we start firefighting, what we see coming from the landfill will be lots of greyish smoke, lots of black smoke, and lots of dense white smoke,” fire chief Luc Grandmaison told council at the meeting.
“We’re going to disturb the density of the material” in the pile.
The fire chief has described the pile both as a smouldering four-storey building packed with flammable material, and a mountain of burnt trash sitting on a landfill 30 metres deep, with a deep-seated fire of unknown size raging up to 15 feet below the surface of the ground.
“I’m going to say it again, just like a volcano,” Grandmaison told council at the meeting.
Temperatures at the surface of the pile are about 650 Celsius, and up to 1,400 C within.
“That’s the temperature of incineration,” he said. “The fire is consuming everything it touches.”
Concerns about the health effects of smoke prompted council to call on the fire department to extinguish the fire, June 11, instead of letting the pile burn itself out as the chief originally advised.
City council okayed a $2,285,400 plan to put out the fire, July 22, along with a motion requesting that the territorial government provide some funds to help pay for it.
The motion to pass the plan included at 15 per cent contingency fee to cover unforeseen costs, which brought the total funding needed up to $2.6 million.
Grandmaison told council at the Aug. 1 meeting the GN told the city as early as July 29 that it “does not have any funding to contribute” to the fire-extinguishing plan.
The GN’s minister of Community of Government Services, Tom Sammurtok, confirmed this again in a public letter delivered to the city at 11:15 a.m., just 15 minutes before the special meeting began.
In the letter, the minister recommended the city use reserve funds to cover the costs.
Sammurtok also confirmed that his department is sticking to a promise to provide $400,000 worth of equipment needed to carry out the fire-extinguishing plan. That equipment includes water pumps, hoses, nozzles, water tanks and containers.
Grandmaison said the GN equipment is not included in the $3.3 million needed, which will cover the bill for other key firefighting equipment and specialized personnel.
This includes excavators, loaders, bulldozers and dump trucks to dig into the pile and move debris, two dozen firefighting and heavy equipment personnel, and costs to accommodate specialists in industrial firefighting, he said.
The city has already spent a total of about $500,000 on the fire, including $68,000 on fire-extinguishing and waste-reduction plans.
Once the extinguishing plan begins, Grandmaison said he expects the city may spend another $500,000 on decontamination of run-off water, he said.
This brings the total cost of the operation closer to $3.3 million, up from the $2.3 million estimate of July 22.
“These are just projected costs, in order to try to extinguish the fire,” the chief told Nunatsiaq News, with emphasis on “try.”
The $3.3 million sum is a “projected minimum cost that we can plan for, but it might cost more than that,” he said.
Given that Iqaluit’s emergency services department could not guarantee that the plan would douse the fire once and for all, Grandmaison gave two completely opposite options for council to choose from.
The first, A, was “to allocate all financial assistance needed to try to extinguish the fire, starting immediately, independent of the final cost of operation in order to protect lives, property and the environment,” the chief said.
The second, B, was to “let the fire burn itself out, no matter what time frame it takes,” he said.
The premise of option B was that “The fire has not posed any threat to human life, property and the environment.
The cause of the fire is due to spontaneous combustion,” he told council. “Smoke emissions being released into the atmosphere are minimal.”
Grandmaison told council that Aglukkaq, as federal environment minister and MP for Nunavut, informed the city July 22 that “the fire is not deemed an emergency.”
The GN’s department of health agrees.
Based on almost two months’ worth of data from air-quality testing in Iqaluit by Environment Canada and Health Canada, Nunavut’s chief medical officer, Dr. Maureen Baikie, told council that the department concluded that smoke from the dump fire is “not a public health emergency.”
Despite these, council stuck with their June 11 order to extinguish the fire, and passed a motion in favour of Grandmaison’s option A.
Councillors also asked the administration to “identify sources of funding” to pay for the fire extinguishment plan out of the city’s budget and called on council’s finance committee of the whole to create a budget for the $3.3 million dump-dousing plan on Aug. 6.
“Councillors at that time will be free to identify sources of funding,” based first on Sammurtok’s advice to draw from the city’s reserve funds, said Coun. Stephen Mansell.