Snap Lake Mine, 220 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife, where 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 limit of cancer-causing toxins into the atmosphere.
The hugely elevated levels of dioxins and furans — released when plastic is burned or garbage isn’t fully incinerated — were recorded through a four-day”stack test.” According to the World Health Organization,”dioxins are highly poisonous and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and cause cancer.” The company contracted to perform the testing at Snap Lake discovered that one of the mine’s incinerators was emitting 6.5 times the acceptable limit, while the other incinerator was emitting a whopping 65 times the acceptable limit (5,220 picograms per cubic metre on average, as
It’s uncertain how long this 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 did not respond to EDGE’s request for a meeting by the time of publication. But, according to a letter from De Beers’ Environment and Permitting Superintendent, Alexandra Hood, sent to the GNWT and Environment Canada in January, the root cause of the problem was”not after standardized work practices,” and running the incinerators, which were only installed in 2013, at too low a temperature.
Since flunking the test, De Beers has retrained personnel, rewritten operating procedures and introduced in new policy to shut down the incinerators if they are not meeting the correct temperatures (if it’s safe to do this ), based on Hood’s letter. A review of the Snap Lake incinerators by a GNWT Lands Officer in March indicates De Beers has ameliorated the problem, at least in part:”No concerns were noted during this review,” it says, and”the west incinerator that was burning waste at the time of inspection was emitting apparent exhaust gas with no black smoke coming from the pile.”
whether sufficient steps are taken, however, will not be known for years: another stack test isn’t scheduled until 2019, according to a source close to the issue wishing to stay anonymous.
No GNWT law
The 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. But it points to a much larger problem in the territory; the GNWT does not regulate emissions, require companies to meet the CWS, or mandate stack testing. (The Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board, likewise, does not regulate air emissions.)
At several points in her letter, Hood notes the lack of regulation, claiming De Beers”will conform with any regulatory requirements regarding incinerator stack testing once enabling legislation is developed and approved in the NWT.”
Without legislation in place, there is nothing to force De Beers or other groups using incinerators (i.e. each mine in the territory), to keep their emissions at a safe 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 plans only dictate coverage requirements, not actual emission targets. And while Hood claims”deficiencies, as measured against the Canada Wide Standards, will be handled through adaptive management and continuous improvement by De Beers,” there is little government oversight of this”continuous improvement” and no fines or other mechanisms to force polluting businesses to remedy their ways.
This problem has been going on for several years. According to a Canadian Press report by 2011, the scientific journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management discovered sediments in a lake close to the Ekati Mine that had levels of dioxins and furans 10 times greater than those collected from an uncontaminated lake. The same report cited a 2007 study commissioned by Environment Canada which suggested”extensive, uncontrolled burning of wastes could result in substantial accumulations of dioxins and furans in the local ecosystem, some of which will persist for some 81/2 years at levels approaching those considered to be of toxicological concern.”
“In many cases we are below the level which health agencies would (watch) for…” the study continues,”but we are getting there.
The record says:”Parties are required to take steps to reduce total releases from anthropogenic sources of dioxins, furans… with the goal of their continuing minimization and where feasible (technically and socio-economically), ultimate elimination.” However, it adds,”each jurisdiction will determine the exact means of ensuring compliance” — basically defanging the document by letting states and territories renege on their commitment without any repercussions.
Other jurisdictions have taken proactive steps, bringing in legislation to regulate emissions consistent with the CWS. The GNWT hasn’t. They did bring in guidelines for managing biomedical waste in 2005, but they have been unwilling to control incinerators at mine sites. Their reason? The”waste incinerators operating at remote industrial sites within the NWT… are located on federal crown land and aren’t regulated by the Government of the Northwest Territories,” states a report by 2009.
This might have been true in 2009, but post-devolution it’s no longer true. Since April of last year, the mines are on land managed by the GNWT, yet there have been no moves from legislators to start 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 reported a”loophole in environmental principles is allowing an increasing number of unregulated waste incinerators to discharge extremely toxic chemicals into the land and water.” He suggested,”when we take on new abilities, we must be prepared to move with law.”
Devolution has come, and incinerators are still operating in an unregulated environment. With all the discussion of fracking and opening up new mining projects in the territory, it’s now time, more than ever, for the GNWT to get its act together.