Snap Lake Mine, 220 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife, in which elevated levels of dioxins and furans were pumped into the atmosphere. Photo Fire Prevention Services
Last July, two incinerators at De Beers’ Snap Lake Mine were belching out clouds of black smoke, one sending an average of 65 times the approved national limitation of naturally-occurring toxins into the atmosphere.
The elevated levels of dioxins and furans — published when plastic is burnt or garbage is not fully incinerated — were captured through a four-day”pile test” According to the World Health Organization,”dioxins are highly toxic and can cause developmental and reproductive problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.” The business contracted to do the testing at Snap Lake discovered that among the mine’s incinerators was emitting 6.5 times the acceptable limit, although another incinerator was emitting a whopping 65 times the acceptable limit (5,220 picograms per cubic metre on average, as
It is uncertain how long it was going on for, although the report noted the problem was clearly visible:”Black opaque smoke was noted for all tests early in the incineration cycle”
De Beers didn’t respond to EDGE’s request for a meeting from the time of publication.
Since flunking the evaluation, De Beers has retrained staff, rewritten operating procedures and introduced in new policy to close down the incinerators if they are not fulfilling the correct temperatures (if it is safe to do so), according to Hood’s letter. An inspection of the Snap Lake incinerators by a GNWT Lands Officer at March indicates De Beers has ameliorated the issue, at least in part:”No concerns were noted during this review,” it states, and”the west incinerator that was burning waste at the time of inspection was discharged clear exhaust gas without a black smoke coming from the pile.”
Whether or not adequate steps have been taken, however, will not be known for years: another stack test is not scheduled before 2019, according to a source near the issue wishing to stay anonymous.
No GNWT law
The simple fact that, for an undetermined time period around July 2014, the Snap Lake incinerators were pumping out unacceptable levels of toxic emissions is troublesome in itself. However, it points to a far larger problem in the land; the GNWT does not govern emissions, require organizations to satisfy the CWS, or mandate pile testing. (The Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board, likewise, does not regulate air emissions.)
At several points in her letter, Hood notes the absence of law, asserting De Beers”will conform to any regulatory requirements involving incinerator stack testing after enabling legislation is approved and developed at the NWT.”
Without legislation in place, there is nothing to induce De Beers or alternative groups with incinerators (i.e. each mine in the land ), to maintain their emissions at a secure level or undertake pile testing on a regular basis. Each mine has an Air Quality and Emissions Management Plan as part of its environmental arrangement, but these programs simply dictate reporting requirements, not actual emission targets. And while Hood asserts”temptation, as measured against the Canada Wide Standards, will be managed through adaptive management and continuous improvement by De Beers,” there’s little government oversight of this”continuous improvement” and no fines or other mechanisms to induce polluting companies to cure their manners.
This problem has been going on for several years. According to a Canadian Press report from 2011, the scientific journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management discovered sediments at a lake near the Ekati Mine that had levels of dioxins and furans 10 times greater than those collected from an uncontaminated lake. The identical 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 from the area ecosystem, some of which will persist for some 81/2 years at levels approaching those believed to be of toxicological concern”
“In most cases we are below the level that health agencies would (watch) for…” the analysis continues,”but we are getting there. And if you have more incinerators and more burning off, you may well exceed those levels.”
The GNWT’s Department of Environment and Natural sources didn’t reunite EDGE’s request for comment on the lack of law.
Why no law?
The record says:”Parties are required to take measures to reduce total releases from anthropogenic sources of dioxins, furans… with the objective of their continuing minimization and where feasible (technically and socio-economically), ultimate elimination.” However, it adds,”each authority will determine the precise means of ensuring compliance” — essentially defanging the record by allowing states and territories renege on their commitment with no repercussions.
Other jurisdictions have taken proactive measures, bringing in law to govern emissions in line with the CWS. The GNWT has not. They did bring in tips for managing biomedical waste in 2005, but they’ve been unwilling to control incinerators at mine sites. Their motive? The”waste incinerators operating at remote industrial sites within the NWT… are situated on federal crown land and aren’t governed by the Government of the Northwest Territories,” says a report from 2009.
This may have been true in 2009, however post-devolution it is no longer the case. Since April of last year, the mines are on property controlled by the GNWT, however there have been no moves from legislators to begin regulating toxic emissions from mine or other industrial incinerators. The last time the issue was discussed at the legislative assembly in 2011, Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley explained that a”loophole in environmental rules is allowing a growing number of unregulated waste incinerators to release extremely toxic compounds into the water and land.” He proposed,”if we take on new abilities, we must be prepared to proceed with law.”
Devolution has come, and incinerators are still operating in an unregulated environment. Considering all the discussion of fracking and opening new mining projects in the land, it is now time, even greater than everfor the GNWT to receive its act together.