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Flashpoint: August 2014

Garbage in, garbage out. We’ve all heard that phrase. It refers to failures in data analysis or human decision making due to faulty, incomplete, or imprecise information being input.

August 5, 2014 
By Peter Sells

Garbage in, garbage out. We’ve all heard that phrase. It refers to failures in data analysis or human decision making due to faulty, incomplete, or imprecise information being input. If what you put in is unreliable, then what you get out will not be useful. Well, believe it or not, the philosophy of garbage in, garbage out may actually be the best, if not perhaps the only, long-term solution to a growing crisis in waste management in the Canadian north.

As I wrote this, the fire in the dump outside of the city of Iqaluit had been burning for at least five weeks. I say at least because it is possible that the fire had been burning for six months or more. Fires were suppressed at the dump three times since December 2013 by the surround-and-drown method. It is possible that beneath the frozen cap that formed over the 15-metre-deep pile, the fire continued to smolder until May 20, when it broke out again in earnest. “Every time before that we were able to extinguish the fires,” Fire Chief Luc Grandmaison told CTV in late May, “we believe what we were extinguishing was just the surface of a deep-seeded fire.”

The costs of fighting that fire, in terms of staffing dollars, diversion of water resources from domestic use to fire fighting, the risk of runoff contamination into Frobisher Bay, and a lack of progress in suppression efforts, led to council ordering Grandmaison to allow the fire to burn itself out. However, after three weeks of complaints about smoke drifting into town whenever the wind shifted, and out of concern for public health, council reversed that decision on June 11, ordering Grandmaison to “at his discretion, extinguish the fire as he sees fit, with the assistance of the Government of Nunavut to be done as soon as possible.”

Grandmaison has been consulting with federal officials and experts in fighting landfill fires, and as of June 27 planned instead to fight fire with fire. “This fire can go away quicker if we accelerate the burning process,” he told the CBC. The suggestion was to aerate the fire by using a long metal pipe, perforated with holes along its length. The pipe would be drilled or rammed into the side of the burning pile in order to blow air into the depth of the fire. The strategy was to allow for more complete and aggressive combustion.


A landfill firefighting expert, Dr. Tony Sperling of Vancouver-based LandfillFire Control Inc., was to arrive in Iqaluit at the end of June to assess the situation and advise how to proceed. Hopefully for all concerned, by the time you read this column, the fire had either been extinguished for good, or had burned itself out.

Neither of those outcomes, however, addresses the root of the issue. Iqaluit, and other northern communities, have a long-term problem on their hands. In fact, in late June, Rankin Inlet was fighting a dump fire of its own. When I was in Iqaluit in September 2010, the second-last sealift of the season had just arrived. Living in a city accessible only by sea or air, residents of Iqaluit depend on cargo deliveries that come into Frobisher Bay every month or so between the spring breakup and autumn freeze.

When I was there, there were a lot of large empty wooden crates visible in front and back yards. I was told that the residents are expected to break up the crates within a week or so of receiving their deliveries. Then the crates, along with all of the leftovers from their former contents, make their way into the landfill. It’s no wonder that in the few weeks since the dump fire had been burning, a temporary landfill site had already piled up 1.5 metres high. There are no household recycling or composting programs in place. “That’s not happening right now,” George Siegler, Iqaluit’s deputy fire chief, told the CBC. “What’s happening is all of our garbage is going back in there. And we’re recreating this again. So this is just a recipe to have this happen again.”

So one reduction solution, already successful in many communities over decades, is not being enacted. Another waits in the wings, perhaps. In 2003, Canada, joined 32 other nations including our Arctic neighbours Finland, Norway, Russia and the United States, in ratifying the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, also known as the Madrid Protocol. In essence, the Madrid Protocol requires any party that transports waste into Antarctica or generates waste in Antarctica, to either incinerate the waste completely or remove it.

Garbage in, garbage out. If we can commit to that process with respect to any mining or commercial interests in the Antarctic, why can we not properly keep house in our own Great White North?

Retired District Chief Peter Sells holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo

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