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Toxic impression

Darrell Greer
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, February 16, 2011

BAKER LAKE - A federal inspection report that found raw sewage and toxic waste leaking from garbage dumps and sewage lagoons in many Nunavut communities came as no surprise to two people who were in Baker Lake this past summer to look at the cultural, social and environmental impacts of mining and mineral exploration on the Inuit of Nunavut.

NNSL photo/graphic

Former Nunavut commissioner Peter Irniq stands among a pile of old cars at the Baker Lake dump this past August. - photo courtesy of Peter Irniq

Prof. Frank Tester is an associate of the Institute for Resources and Environmental Sustainability in British Columbia.

He said he was appalled by what he saw at the Baker dump this past August.

"I'm not naive and I realize these things happen because I've seen it in Third World countries," said Tester.

"It's not the first time I've seen a dump in that kind of shape, but it was pretty bad.

"In fact, there are 25 sea containers full of toxic materials sitting in Baker right now, waiting to be shipped out in the spring for treatment.

"Environment Canada ordered a cleanup after we went in, and cleaned up more than 1,400 45-gallon drums."

Tester said his biggest concern following his visit was toxic waste leeching into the wetland that borders the dump, and then draining into a water course that ends up in Baker Lake, where the hamlet gets its drinking water.

He said damage could already have been done to some people, but the evidence takes a long time to surface.

"Toxic wastes are often insidious and don't produce instant health problems.

"They produce problems that are, typically, created over time.

"It takes a while for cancers to develop, with something like asbestosis being a classic example.

"You work in an asbestos mine and you're fine for years, and then you retire at 65 and you're dead eight months later."

Tester said the Baker dump had everything you could think of leaching into the water course.

Environment Canada took water samples from the outfall of the marsh and, from what Tester knows, the results were very bad.

He said the federal government should have been onto Nunavut's water and dump problems a long time ago.

He said as far as he's concerned, the recent study is a bit of a diversion.

"The Nunavut Water Board issues water licences to municipalities, but the real responsibility where water contamination is involved rests with Environment Canada and, especially, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs, which is responsible for monitoring and enforcing the terms and conditions of the licences," Tester said.

"Some of the stuff in the Baker Lake dump had toxic waste written right on it, with no lids on them and the contents overflowing and spilling right into the marsh.

"As far as I'm concerned, Northern Affairs has been absolutely negligent and fallen on its face because it hasn't been doing its job.

"It should be taking action to make damn sure it doesn't happen again, because some people only change their behaviour when they get their wrist slapped."

A report from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada cites numerous issues such as insulation having been recently burned on site; batteries stacked outside and inside a seacan in the hazardous waste area, some of which were broken open with no liner present; the "haphazard" storage of leaking waste oil and other unknown fluids on site.

The report, dated Aug. 31, 2010, notes that the municipality was to have addressed the latter issue prior to the 2010 inspection. As well, the report states that the municipality of Baker Lake shall no longer accept waste from outside the community, including from exploration camps, until it addresses the sorting and containment deficiencies.

"The municipality is ultimately responsible for the management and control of the facility and as such should more

vigorously police the area," the report reads.

Former Nunavut commissioner Peter Irniq also wasn't surprised to hear the results of the federal study.

Irniq said he was horrified by what the group saw during its visit to Baker.

He said he noticed quite a bit of toxic material at the Baker dump.

"I saw lots and lots of old batteries and barrels leaking toxic waste," said Irniq.

"There was quite a lot of toxic material around that was flowing from pond to pond, and then into a lake and, finally, into Baker Lake itself.

"People have to use this as an opportunity to wake up and start cleaning up the community because, if we don't, it's going to become a major problem.

"That's the water we drink."

Irniq said he's noticed similar problems in a number of Nunavut communities he's visited.

He said he's even seen the problem getting worse in his own hometown.

"In my hometown of Naujaat (Repulse Bay), which I often call heaven, I've seen sewage draining into Repulse Bay itself.

"These aren't new problems, but rather problems started by the old Department of Indian Affairs when it began coming into the communities.

"Its workers threw all kinds of garbage all over the place, so it's not, necessarily, just the problem of Inuit.

"It was started by the government many decades ago."

Irniq said the federal government should immediately provide cash and expertise to clean up many Nunavut communities.

He said the federal government should do all it can in assisting the communities to clean up the mess its workers left behind.

"I feel very strongly about that, and it has to happen before it all becomes a monumental problem.

"It's only going to get worse and the municipalities can't afford to address the problem on their own, and nor should they have to."

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