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Testing shows Iqaluit dump fire not causing air-quality emergency

IQALUIT, Nunavut - An unquenchable three-week-old fire at the Iqaluit dump that has closed schools and seared nostrils all over town hasn't caused an air-quality emergency, officials say.

Environment Canada used hand-held monitoring devices flown up from the south in 15 locations across the city and concluded that contaminant levels aren't high enough to trigger an emergency response, Yasmina Pepa, spokeswoman for the Nunavut government, said Tuesday.

"What they're finding is that you don't have to go very far away from the plume of smoke and the levels drop significantly," she said.

Iqaluit residents have been living with the fire dubbed the "dumpcano" — a combination of dump and volcano — since it flared up on May 20 from spontaneous combustion.

The fire, measured at up to 1,400 C, is centred somewhere deep within the vast pile of trash that is the Iqaluit city dump. The burning section is a smoky cauldron about the size of a football field and up to four storeys deep.

All that fire crews have been able to do safely is cut trenches through the trash, isolate the smouldering section and let the untold numbers of bags of household garbage burn themselves out.

Two schools were closed for two days last week and the Nunavut Health Department suggested people with heart or respiratory problems stay inside. Eight people have gone to the hospital with smoke-related complaints, although no one was admitted.

Although schools were open Tuesday, the smell was noticeable all through town. It appears every time the wind blows from the west. The Health Department has asked people to call in reports on the smell from different parts of town.

It's the dump's fourth fire since mid-December. A previous fire in 2010 took six weeks to put out.

John Hussey, Iqaluit's chief administrative officer, said the problem will eventually be fixed. The city is building a road to a new, modern dump site eight kilometres from town. A $500,000 facility that will burn household garbage at high temperatures and reduce it to a small amount of ash is to be shipped up next spring.

"We're taking action, but it's one of those things that can't be fixed overnight," he said.

Nunavut mayors first asked the federal government for extra money to fix dangerous dumps and failing sewage lagoons in 2001. A 2004 report by the Conference Board of Canada made similar points, as did a 2010 consultant's study for Environment Canada.

Nunavut is currently studying waste systems with Dalhousie University in Halifax.

A 2011 estimate put the cost of modernizing all 25 municipal dumps in Nunavut at between $320 million and $500 million.

Environment Canada is sending up better equipment for long-term air monitoring. Two staff members from the National Environmental Emergencies Centre are on the ground.

A smoke dispersion model is being updated every six hours to help territorial officials assess possible health impacts.

"We are not going to have an accurate picture on what is going on until we have two to four weeks of data collection from the additional instruments that are being shipped up here by both Health Canada and Environment Canada," said Pepa.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton

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