An overview of dump fix options for Iqaluit

Landfill expert explains why putting out dumpcano is not so simple


The evaluation criteria Dr. Tony Sperling used to determine the best solution for Iqaluit's 44-day-old dump fire. (PHOTO BY DAVID MURPHY)

The evaluation criteria Dr. Tony Sperling used to determine the best solution for Iqaluit’s 44-day-old dump fire. (PHOTO BY DAVID MURPHY)

Here's the last slide of Dr. Tony Sperling's PowerPoint presentation which he delivered June 30 to Iqaluit city councillors. (PHOTO BY DAVID MURPHY)

Here’s the last slide of Dr. Tony Sperling’s PowerPoint presentation which he delivered June 30 to Iqaluit city councillors. (PHOTO BY DAVID MURPHY)

You can’t water bomb Iqaluit’s dump fire.

Neither can you throw diesel on it to accelerate the burn. Spraying it with salt water doesn’t work. And don’t even think about blowing it up with explosives.

All these options either won’t work or will just create bigger environmental problems for Iqaluit’s deep-seated dump fire, landfill designer and expert Dr. Tony Sperling explained to city councillors June 30.

Sperling was recently hired by the City of Iqaluit as a consultant to find solutions to the smouldering dump fire that has been burning, at least visibly, for 44 days.

At the Iqaluit council meeting this week, Sperling said Nunavut’s capital currently has one of the worst dumps he’s ever seen in North America.

He went through a list of possible options on how to extinguish the fire — some of which he’s actually tried in other jurisdictions — and explained why most of them won’t work.

Below is a summary of those options.

• Do nothing

Letting the fire burn out by itself would take up to a year, and winter weather won’t naturally extinguish the deep-seated, roughly 500 degree Celsius fire. “People are already tired of the smoke, they want to get it over with,” Sperling said. Iqaluit City Council has also passed a motion to extinguish the fire as soon as possible.

• Bury it with dirt

This method sometimes works for landfill fires, but the steep slopes of garbage prevent this option from working. If dirt is buried on the dump fire and the slopes collapse, “that would open up the soil cover for more air entry,” Sperling said.

• Spray it with water

As Iqaluit fire chief Luc Grandmaison has explained in the past, the water wouldn’t actually penetrate into the smouldering depths of the fire. “The water will not get into the middle of the landfill where we need to extinguish it,” Sperling said.

• “Water In-Situ Mixing”

This would involve mixing water in with the dump fire, stirring it around, and making the pile into what Sperling described as a “big mud hole.” “This doesn’t work because this landfill is 15 metres deep,” and there’s not an excavator big enough to mix it.

• Injecting water into the middle

This involves drilling a pipe horizontally into the belly of the dump fire and having water flow into it. “We could not think of a really good practical way given the density of the waste mass to look at doing that,” Sperling said. But this method is still under consideration.

• Injecting carbon dioxide/nitrogen

This method is much like the injection of water. The idea is that injected gas would disperse the oxygen and put the fire out. But gasses are already venting out of the dump fire already, “So putting in carbon dioxide would not help a lot.” Plus the city would need 15 tanker loads of Co2 at the ready. “It’s totally impractical,” Sperling said.

• Spraying it with surface foam

Sometimes fires are put out by spraying a special firefighting foam on it, something Government of Nunavut community and government services minister Tom Sammurtok suggested the GN was looking into. “It’s something that’s good for fighting airplane crash fires, but it’s not really effective in addressing deep-seated landfill fires,” Sperling said.

• Injecting foam into the middle

This method is very technical, Sperling said, and it wouldn’t work well in Iqaluit. “In remote areas where you are, the simpler, the better. So we’ve got good heavy equipment here, let’s take the tried and true method, and not really get into the fancy stuff.” This method is still under consideration.

• Smothering

This would involve putting a synthetic material, called a geomembrane cover, over the top of dumpcano to suffocate the fire. Sperling said this method was tried in Hawaii, “but unfortunately the plastic melts at a temperature of about 120 degrees Celsius.” Sperling said the Iqaluit fire is burning at around 500 degrees Celsius.

• Water bomber

Because the landfill fire is so deeply buried, this wouldn’t work. “People see water bombers putting out big, big forest fires that are many times larger than the fire we have here. But unfortunately those are surface fires,” Sperling said. The water would eventually just run off without penetrating the middle.

• Bury the pile with sea ice

“Really, all you’re doing is putting water in a solid form on the land fill and probably causing a lot of environmental damage by running trucks on the beach or whatnot. So I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Sperling said.

• Accelerate the burn using air

This worked for Sperling in a Vancouver Island, B.C, fire. It would involve pushing big pipes into the middle of the dump fire and introducing air. The Vancouver Island project worked within three weeks and was about the same size as Iqaluit’s fire, but that fire involved a pile of clean-burning wood waste.

Because there are more plastics and metals in Iqaluit’s dump fire, it’s not the best solution. “It was a much cleaner forest-fire-type burn, not one that produces a lot of toxics.” This method is still being explored, Sperling said, but “I think the release to the environment is something that we would want to try to avoid.” This method would cost an estimated $5.1 million.

• Accelerate the burn with diesel fuel

“Not acceptable,” read a slide in Sperling’s PowerPoint presentation. “It would create even more lift and more dust dispersal.” Sperling described this dust as being potentially hazardous waste material.

• Blow it up with explosives

Sperling said he actually used this method on a landfill fire in Panama that was 50 times larger than Iqaluit’s dump fire. “It was suggested that the army just bring a bunch of explosives in and just blow it all up,” Sperling said. “I’ve heard there’s a big storage of explosives in town here. I would suggest to you that we don’t do that.”

• Scoop and dunk

This “tried and true” strategy, which Sperling calls the “overhaul method,” is the best solution, Sperling said. It involves fragmenting the dump fire with excavators, dunking it into a pool to extinguish it, and throwing it back into the dump with added dirt.

“I’ve successfully extinguished a number of very large fires with that method,” Sperling said.

The plan would cost an estimated $3.4 million, and would put the fire out in approximately two months. The project would continue seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day.

It would require up to 30 people, a number that would include a nine-person incident command team, nine equipment operators and seven firefighters.

It would also include heavy equipment: four excavators of different sizes, two loaders and one dozer.

Sperling said “it’s crunch time right now.” There’s only a window of two or three months to put this out before winter comes.

Sperling has prolonged his stay in Iqaluit to consult with the consortium of partners who form the landfill fire working group.

There has not yet been an official decision on how to extinguish the dump fire, which has been burning since May 20.

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