A 'Dumpcano' in the Canadian Arctic Has Been Burning for Eight Weeks

By Peter Worden


The smouldering Dumpcano in beautiful Iqaluit. Photo by Anubha Momin, via Finding True North.

The “Dumpcano” is back, and it’s badder than ever.

For more than eight weeks, Iqaluit’s dump fire—dubbed “dumpcano” after the Canadian city’s fire chief likened it to a volcano of garbage—has burned unabated. Though, to be accurate, it has been aflame since January when thermal imaging revealed the then-four-story pile of trash had been burning deep inside like a dragon with indigestion. When it eventually “erupted” into visible flames May 20, it was, for most Iqalummiut (that's citizens of Iqaluit), merely the latest of innumerable dump flare-ups in recent memory.

In many ways it never really left.

For years, the eastern Canadian Arctic capital city of Nunavut has had sporadic dump fires in varying degrees of public concern. Until 2002, the city routinely did open-pit burning at the landfill, like, on purpose. A group of concerned citizens sued the City, who decided not to indiscriminately burn its pile of household waste (batteries, tires, kitchen scraps, plastic bags)—intentionally—anymore. Since then, however, the sheer size of the dump has provided the requisite pressure for anaerobic breakdown of an unholy concoction of organics, chemicals and really, really flammable shit.

It happens nearly every other month. But not like this. The last big Dumpcano in 2010 took 36 days and three 800 thousand gallons of water to extinguish. (Even the famed tire fire that put Hagersville, Ontario on the map only burned for 17 days.) And this Dumpcano is five-times the size of that Dumpcano.

As I write, the flames are gone but Dumpcano smolders in the way you might imagine a post-eruption volcanic landscape, sort of a giant pile of smoking ash. As a resident, I can vouch that most days, if the wind is blowing away from town, it is simply out of smell, out of mind. (Prevailing winds are north–south whereas the dump sits west of town.) If the plume drifts across town, homes, offices and schools fill with a plastic-y campfire scent. It is god-awful.The upshot: the pile, once 130 feet and 525 feet across, has now two months later, reduced sizably to about a two-story football field.

Not only is Dumpcano one of the northern-most dump fires on the planet and Nunavut’s longest-lasting dump fire, it is also in the rare category (less-than-five percent) of dump fires borne of a spontaneous combustion. Unlike some landfill fires sparked by arson or accident, Dumpcano began as naturally as a dump fire can. As Patrick Foss-Smith from the online industry publication Waste Management World explains: “a buried heat source, resulting from biological decomposition or chemical oxidation [can] produce a rise in temperature.” It can ignite virtually anything. Mercury batteries or rags coated in aluminum paint or dregs of flammable alcohol or bug spray.

There’s nothing like a perennial epidemic to spur people into giving a shit. Dr. Tony Sperling, P.Eng, president of Sperling Hansen Associates, a designer/occasional put’er-out’er of landfills, and non-mincer of words, says, “It’s one of the worst examples of landfill operations in North America right now.”

Oh wait, he’s not done.

“Maybe one of the worst in North and South America,” he clarifies over the phone, a couple weeks later, after presenting his problems and solutions to Iqaluit city council. Sperling, who has successfully extinguished 30 dump fires, drew up what was essentially a pros–cons list of How Badly Do We Want This Thing Out weighed against costs and risks, both environmental and personal. (Note: Sperling himself wasn’t immune to being publicly cost-benefit analyzed over his $350-an-hour charge out rate that “everybody bitched about,” he said.)

The latest and most likely solution is basically: lop off the head of Dumpcano; dunk claw-full after claw-full of smoldering garbage thoroughly in a salt water “quenching pond;” hose out its fiery innards with salt water. Repeat for 30 days. Cost: $2.2 million.


From the "Stop the Dump Fires" Facebook page. Photo by Shawn Inuksuk.

For years Iqaluit’s solid waste has literally been piling up. For one, the city has almost tripled in population since 1999 from 3,000 to 8,000-plus residents. Two, zero recycling exists in the city with a minor exception of a few outlets accepting aluminum cans and liquor bottles. There is virtually no sorting. Three, the landfill—which is a misnomer because it sits on top of permafrost and is not in fact infill—should’ve ceased collecting trash a decade ago. The site was first approved in 1999 as a five-year temporary location. Today, the same site continues to receive about 26 tons of garbage every day.

The remoteness of Nunavut means mainstream recycling makes no sense at all. Shipping cardboard can net, say, $400 per ton in the south but cost $500 per ton to ship retrograde from Iqaluit and parts north to a southern recycling facility. Without recycling, waste at the so-called landfill/mountaintop has nowhere to go but up. As the “temporary” site filled past capacity, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada tested the water in adjacent Koojessee Inlet. In 2012, they uncovered higher than allowed amounts of ammonia, toxic metals, and other trace pollutants. AANDC revoked Iqaluit’s water license (which the city did without for two years), and warned city councilors they could face large fines or even jail time.

In a letter, AANDC stated matter-of-factly:

“These effluent discharge results exceed the maximum allowable effluent quality parameters permitted under Part E, Item 3 of the Water Licence.”

… Failure to comply fully or in part with an Inspector’s Direction... may entail, upon summary conviction, a fine of $100,000 or to imprisonment for a term of one year, or both.”

In his “humble opinion” Sperling says Iqaluit spends less than half the amount it should on solid waste management. The amount invested is about $40 per ton, comparable in amount to a larger landfill in southern Canada, but woefully inadequate in the Arctic where the cost of logistics and labor typically doubles.

It is much the same in Nunavut’s two-dozen isolated, fly-in only communities where the best solution at present is to openly burn garbage and potentially emit carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), heavy metals such as mercury and other particulates.

“I have grave concerns about burning garbage,” he says. “There’s a lot of unhealthy stuff that is released. People haven’t got a clue what they’re breathing.”

Aside from obvious health ramifications, Dumpcano has incalculable effects on the city. It’s not great for Iqaluit’s image. Smoke from the pile of trash is pretty much the first thing you see and smell when you fly in. That’s a hard sell for Nunavut Tourism, which relies on the Arctic’s reputation of pristine landscape. CEO of Nunavut Tourism Colleen Dupuis says it hasn’t had a huge effect yet, but the visitor centre and museum have closed on certain days due to the smoke. Improbably, Dupuis says Dumpcano has become a bit of tourism hot spot itself. She’s torn between whether or not to bring visitors to see Dumpcano—“some people want to see it up close,” she said.

In June, Iqaluit’s citywide cleanup was postponed due to wind advisories warning smoke would blow over the city. The irony again captured on social media—“too much burning garbage to pick up garbage,” someone tweeted.

A closer, dramatically scored look at Dumpcano. Via Youtube.

Sperling says the solution is sort of a no-brainer. Iqaluit could conserve as much as 50 percent of landfill space simply by sorting wood, paper and cardboard at home before it gets to the landfill. Those items could be cleanly burned off. (Plastics and metals could be bailed and shipped as back-haul.)

Speaking of reverting to burning trash intentionally, one of the most likely solutions is incineration. Iqaluit invested this year in a half-million-dollar gasification pilot project that would heat trash to 1000ºC and process up to 500 kilograms of waste a day.

“I’d say great,” says Sperling. “But if you go down that road, tread very carefully.”

He says the mass economies of scale don’t typically make sense for incineration in small centres like Iqaluit. They require highly trained technicians to operate, fix clean, etc. and still require someone to manage the resultant toxic ash at the landfill.

But as creatures of habit, the biggest challenge will be getting residents to consciously sort household waste at the behest of Fire Chief Luc Grandmaison. Sadly, the temporary landfill next-door to Dumpcano to divert trash from the burning pile is now an eight-week-old, five foot high baby Dumpcano.

The amount of local and national attention that this fire has garnered has put the fire chief in the hot seat. Grandmaison initially wanted the fire to burn itself out. But half of the homes in Iqaluit depend on water delivery—so fighting a dump fire would not only waste precious potable water, but also divert water truck resources. The dump was also full of (potentially) deep air pockets that could collapse or swallow fire fighters on the surface.

“Luc is a good man,” says Sperling, who says he knows how it is—why don’t you just do this? Why don’t you try that? “He has a big problem not of his making. I feel his pain.”

“Everybody is a landfill fire expert.”

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