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Is the gravel pit contaminated?

John Thompson
Northern News Services

Iqaluit (July 11/05) - "See those old barrels? Look at the seeping black stuff coming out," says Glenn Williams, pointing a finger as he drives alongside North 40, Iqaluit's gravel pit. "That's definitely contaminated."

The city's deputy mayor has concerns about what might lie beneath the surface here, an area littered with abandoned small aircraft, rusted cars and patches of asphalt. He worries what resulted from the site's use as a metal dump for many years.

Iqaluit has been built on hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of material excavated from the site. It lines the roads and culverts, forms the foundations for homes and other buildings.

Without gravel, the city won't grow. But Iqaluit's sole source of the building material also happens to hold hazardous relics from the past.

Hundreds of bags of asbestos lie beneath tarps and dirt, while petroleum seeps from the banks and gathers into green water in the pit's centre.

Ownership of the site changed hands from the federal government to the territory during a land transfer in the 1970s, and in 1997 the city signed a quarry management agreement to administer the site for 10 years.

Williams is concerned what liability the waste might pose, and who, in the end, will pay to clean it up.

"We're being caught in the middle," Williams said.

Last year, the site closed several times following the discovery of petroleum and asbestos. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) asked the city to stop excavating until safety could be assured at the site. Now, the city needs a water licence from the Nunavut Water Board to prove there's no risk of contaminants leaving the site.

The city submitted its licence application several weeks ago.

Concerns were raised over whether any contaminated water at the site could in turn contaminate the gravel.

Tests conducted last summer on gravel from the area showed no dangerously high levels of contaminants, said city engineer Brad Sokach.

"We haven't found anything in the gravel we've tested. That makes me pretty comfortable with what we've taken out of the site for the city," he said. "It doesn't present any health risks."

This summer the city plans to spend $30,000 on putting a final cap on the asbestos and between $50,000-$100,000 on final containment of the petroleum at the pit.

As for the oozing barrels, Sokach believes they hold nothing but tar.

The importance of gravel for city projects can't be understated, he said. "It's huge."

INAC carries out safety monitoring for North 40, and, more recently, has helped the city identity potential future gravel sources.

"The only solution is to find another site," said INAC's Bernie MacIsaac.

But another operational gravel pit is several years down the road. Two sites are being looked at, one closer but smaller and the other larger but further from the city. The city is looking at short-term cost against long-term gain before making their decision.

While it's unlikely gravel used for past construction efforts could pose a health risk, MacIsaac said he couldn't rule out the possibility.

And if it did, he says that's an environmental protection issue for the territorial government.

As for who's ultimately liable and who will pay the price for site clean-up, MacIsaac said that's still open for debate.

"What it boils down to is who's responsible for the materials in the site," he said. "That discussion needs to take place, but it really hasn't yet."