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Dump controversy smoulders

Photographs from Carcross of a flaming heap of garbage that contains oil containers, vinyl siding, tarpaulins and other toxic refuse have the NDP's Steve Cardiff in a tizzy.

Photographs from Carcross of a flaming heap of garbage that contains oil containers, vinyl siding, tarpaulins and other toxic refuse have the NDP’s Steve Cardiff in a tizzy.

“Basically what it means is the government is in violation of the (Yukon) Environment Act and the air regulations that go with it,” said Cardiff. “You’re not supposed to be burning waste petroleum products.”

He’s correct to say it’s illegal to burn such materials, but wrong to assume it’s government contractors who set the garbage ablaze, say territorial officials.

“The fire was set by arsonists. It wasn’t set by the Yukon government,” said Gary Felker, acting manager of operations for Yukon’s Department of Community Services, which manages waste disposal in the territory’s unincorporated communities.

But police are not treating the incident as arson, but as a lesser, regulatory offense.

The attending officer found two burning barrels of garbage, but no evidence of “nefarious” intent, said Sgt. Don Rogers, spokesman for the RCMP.

“He felt it was more a case of having to educate people,” said Rogers. “It’s not arson.”

The burning of garbage has long been a contentious issue in Carcross, where residents have demanded for years that the government convert the landfill into a transfer station, where trash would be stored and periodically trucked to Whitehorse.

Residents should get their wish by spring, said Archie Lang, minister of Community Services on Tuesday, while speaking at a public meeting in Carcross.

Hopefully Lang’s timeline is more accurate than another tidbit he told Carcross residents: he erroneously said that the transfer bins had already been ordered.

That’s not the case, said Felker. The department hasn’t received cabinet approval to start work on the project, and no money has yet been freed up for the work.

The territory first promised to build a transfer station in Carcross two years ago, said Cardiff.

“The government went back on that.”

The placement of a transfer station in Carcross is just one of many recommendations made in a report, released in August, by EBA Engineering Consultants on how to improve the management of Yukon’s landfills.

Under EBA’s plan, almost all unincorporated communities would become transfer stations, with their waste trucked to the nearest municipal dump.

The exception to the trucking scheme would be Old Crow, which, with no permanent road connecting it to the rest of the territory, would be best served with the installation of an incinerator, according to the report.

The waste that cannot be incinerated in Old Crow should be periodically hauled from the community, the report recommends.

Also, an environmental assessment should be conducted at Old Crow’s dump, which sits within 50 metres of the Porcupine River, it recommends.

This summer, regulators warned dangerous waste was being improperly stored at the landfill and toxic runoff from the dump could flow into the river.

It’s not yet clear which of the report’s recommendations will be adopted by the government, other than the plan to build a transfer station in Carcross, said Felker.

But the proposal to schedule garbage truck runs between Yukon’s smaller communities could help eliminate the territory’s present practice of burning trash.

And that could help douse a smoldering controversy.

This spring, the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Board recommended the territory stop burning garbage.

But the Yukon government rejected the proposal, stating it had no choice but to keep burning because there was no backup plan.

The territory has promised to cease burning garbage by 2012.

That’s not soon enough, said Cardiff. “The government should act now,” he said. “This is just unacceptable.”

Another study released this summer found emissions from burning garbage posed no threat to the health of Yukoners.

But when burning is underway, residents from Carcross and elsewhere report “they get headaches, body aches, they feel nauseous - and that’s just in your backyard,” said Cardiff.

The large, steel burning vessels in use help to prevent garbage from blowing away or being devoured by animals and birds. But they are not incinerators, and do nothing to curb emissions.

Carcross is the only community that burns without a vessel - instead, garbage is burned in an open trench.

Community members rejected the territory’s offer to install a vessel. They wanted a transfer station instead.

Even with a transfer station, some burning of waste wood and brush would happen in Carcross, but “at least they’re not as toxic as garbage,” said Felker.

And there’s no plan for a recycling station in the community.

The government cannot be faulted for all the territory’s waste-disposal challenges. One big problem, according to Felker, is the indiscriminate dumping of hazardous waste - oil, antifreeze, paints and thinners, car batteries and medication, among other items - at landfills.

Such items are supposed to be dropped at specially designed areas at landfills, but often aren’t.

“People won’t follow the signage. It’s a constant hassle to try to keep everything segregated,” said Felker.

Fixed entry hours and the installation of security cameras could help curb the improper disposal of hazardous waste, the report suggests.

With files from James Munson.

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