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Garbage dump fire smoulders on in Iqaluit, where there's no money to douse it

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IQALUIT, Nunavut - A smouldering blaze in the Nunavut capital's garbage dump continues to spew acrid fumes onto the city, where the roads are dotted with Inuit children on their bicycles, enjoying the summer's 19 hours of daylight.

Iqaluit officials say a lack of money and manpower prevents them from dousing the fire almost two months after it started, and wonder why neither Ottawa nor the Nunavut government has stepped up with funds for the territorial capital and its most populous town.

"The fire department doesn't have enough workers to commit to putting it out, and the city doesn't have the funds to put it out or to hire more people," Romeyn Stevenson, Iqaluit's deputy mayor, said in an interview.

"The government of Nunavut says they don't have the money, and the federal government just seems to have forgotten about us completely. They sent some Environment Ministry officials up for a few days and then said the fumes weren't dangerous, and then we really haven't heard from them since."

Health Canada and Environment Canada have reported no major air-quality issues resulting from the burning dump. But they have yet to make public any information on dioxins and furans — toxic chemicals released when hazardous waste is burned.

The stench that hangs over the Arctic boomtown when the wind blows from the west is often putrid, forcing residents to cover their mouths and noses when they walk outdoors, or to stay inside during temperate summer months that are feverishly anticipated all winter long.

Last month, the Nunavut Health Department warned those with heart and lung disease, the elderly and the very young to stay indoors as much as possible, with the windows closed. Schoolchildren were also sent home for two days from two local schools when the fumes were particularly thick.

Nunavut is also dealing with a tuberculosis crisis. There have been 46 new cases in the territory this year, several in Iqaluit, where families are often forced to live in over-crowded conditions due to a lack of social housing.

The garbage fire — dubbed "dumpcano" by locals — is about the size of a football field and centred somewhere deep within the vast piles of trash in Iqaluit's dump. The site sits on a finger of land jutting into Frobisher Bay, and is visible from almost every vantage point in town.

Indeed, when the premiers of Alberta, Nunavut, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories posed for photos last week outside a downtown hotel overlooking the bay, the plumes of stinky smoke were clearly visible behind them.

The town's fire chief, Luc Grandmaison, presented a plan to douse the fire to city council last week. It would cost at least $4.5 million, and would involve cooling the smouldering garbage with millions of litres of seawater in an almost round-the-clock effort that would take nearly two months to complete.

Pumps to assist in that proposal are en route to Iqaluit from Pangnirtung, further north on Baffin Island, said Stevenson. The pumps are expected to arrive on Thursday, but there's still no money or manpower to tackle the job.

Yasmine Pepa, a spokesman for Nunavut Premier Peter Taptuna, said the territory is providing "administrative and logistic" support to Iqaluit but cautions the town cannot simply go ahead and extinguish the fire.

"The city of Iqaluit must receive all the necessary regulatory approvals, licenses, permits, etc., to douse the dump fire with water, prior to accessing the equipment," she said in an email.

"This is critical and their jurisdictional responsibility. It is up to the city to determine the most feasible option to extinguish the fire at the city's dump. ... It is also the city of Iqaluit's jurisdictional responsibility to continue to mange what is considered a controlled fire."

A spokesman for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, a Nunavut MP, didn't immediately provide a comment.

Shoddy municipal infrastructure is nothing new in Nunavut.

Fourteen years ago, Nunavut mayors pleaded with the federal government for extra money to deal with dangerous dumps and failing sewage lagoons. A 2004 report by the Conference Board of Canada made similar points, as did a consultant's study for Environment Canada done in 2010.

Residents, business owners and shipping companies alike have also been calling for marine infrastructure in Iqaluit, a gateway to the high Arctic, a region that's opening up to oil and gas exploration due to climate change.

With no docks or working causeways in town, massive shipping vessels are forced work around some of the highest tides in the world to unload much-needed cargo for the community onto its beaches.

Follow Lee-Anne Goodman on Twitter at @leeanne25

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