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Snap Lake Mine, 220 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife, where elevated levels of dioxins and furans were pumped into the atmosphere. | Photo Fire Prevention Services
Last July, two incinerators in De Beers’ Snap Lake Mine were belching out clouds of black smoke, one sending an average of 65 times the approved nationwide limitation of naturally-occurring toxins into the atmosphere.
The hugely elevated levels of dioxins and furans — published when plastic is burned or garbage is not fully incinerated — were recorded during a four-day”stack test.” According to the World Health Organization,”dioxins are highly poisonous and can cause developmental and reproductive problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.” The company contracted to perform the testing at Snap Lake found that among the mine’s incinerators was emitting 6.5 times the acceptable limit, while the other incinerator was emitting a whopping 65 times the acceptable limit (5,220 picograms per cubic metre on average, as
It is unclear how long this was going on for, although the report noted that the problem was clearly visible:”Black opaque smoke was noted for all tests early in the incineration cycle”
De Beers did not respond to EDGE’s request for an interview from the time of publication.
Since flunking the test, De Beers has retrained personnel, rewritten operating procedures and brought in new policy to shut down the incinerators if they are not meeting the correct temperatures (if it’s safe to do this ), according to Hood’s letter. A review of the Snap Lake incinerators by a GNWT Lands Officer in March indicates De Beers has ameliorated the problem, at least in part:”No concerns were noted during this inspection,” it says, and”the west incinerator which was burning waste in the time of inspection was emitting apparent exhaust gas with no black smoke coming from the stack.”
Whether or not sufficient steps have been taken, however, won’t be known for years: the next stack test is not scheduled until 2019, according to a source near the issue wishing to stay anonymous.
No GNWT regulation
The fact that, for an undetermined period of time around July 2014, the Snap Lake incinerators were pumping out unacceptable levels of toxic emissions is troublesome in itself. But it points to a much larger problem in the territory; the GNWT does not regulate emissions, require organizations to meet the CWS, or mandate stack testing. (The Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board, likewise, does not regulate air emissions.)
At several points in her letter, Hood notes the lack of regulation, claiming De Beers”will conform with any regulatory requirements regarding incinerator stack testing once enabling legislation is developed and accepted in the NWT.”
Without legislation in place, there is nothing to induce De Beers or other groups using incinerators (i.e. each mine in the land ), to keep their emissions in a safe level or undertake stack testing on a regular basis. Each mine has an Air Quality and Emissions Management Plan as part of its environmental agreement, but these programs only dictate coverage requirements, not real emission targets. And while Hood asserts”deficiencies, as measured against the Canada Wide Standards, will be handled through adaptive management and continuous improvement by De Beers,” there is little government oversight of the”continuous improvement” and no penalties or other mechanisms to force polluting businesses to remedy their ways.
This problem has been happening for several years. According to a Canadian Press report from 2011, the scientific journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management discovered sediments in a lake near the Ekati Mine that had levels of dioxins and furans 10 times higher than those collected from an uncontaminated lake. The same report cited a 2007 study commissioned by Environment Canada which indicated”extensive, uncontrolled burning of wastes could result in substantial accumulations of dioxins and furans in the local ecosystem, some of which will persist for some 81/2 years at levels approaching those considered to be of toxicological concern.”
“In most cases we’re below the level that health agencies would (watch) for…” the study continues,”but we’re getting there. And if you have more incinerators and more burning, you may well exceed those amounts.”
Why no regulation?
Back in 2001, the GNWT did sign on to the Canada-Wide Standards of dioxins and furans with all other states and territories (except Quebec) as part of a nationwide Accord on Environmental Harmonization.
The record says:”Parties are required to take measures to reduce total releases from anthropogenic sources of dioxins, furans… with the goal of their continuing minimization and where feasible (technically and socio-economically), ultimate elimination.” But it adds,”each jurisdiction will determine the precise way of ensuring compliance” — essentially defanging the document by letting states and territories renege on their commitment without any repercussions.
Other authorities have taken proactive steps, bringing in legislation to regulate emissions in line with the CWS. The GNWT hasn’t. They did bring in guidelines for managing biomedical waste in 2005, but they have been reluctant to control incinerators at mine sites. Their reason? The”waste incinerators operating at remote industrial sites within the NWT… are located on federal crown land and aren’t regulated by the Government of the Northwest Territories,” says a report from 2009.
This might have been true in 2009, but post-devolution it’s no longer the case. Since April of this past year, the mines are on land managed by the GNWT, yet there have been no moves from legislators to begin regulating toxic emissions from other industrial incinerators. The last time the issue was discussed in the legislative assembly in 2011, Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley said a”loophole in environmental principles is allowing a growing number of unregulated waste incinerators to release extremely toxic compounds into the land and water.” He suggested,”when we take on new powers, we must be ready to proceed with new law.”
Devolution has arrived, and incinerators are still operating in an unregulated environment. With all the talk of fracking and opening up new mining projects in the territory, it’s now time, more than ever, for the GNWT to get its act together.
Devolution has come, and incinerators are still operating in an unregulated environment. With all the talk of fracking and opening up new mining projects in the territory, it’s now time, more than ever, for the GNWT to get its act together.