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Petition demands an end to Whapmagoostui dump site’s toxic fumes

BY Patrick Quinn Jul 31, 2020

At the mouth of the Great Whale River, the Cree community of Whapmagoostui shares several services with the neighbouring Inuit village of Kuujjuarapik, including a controversial landfill site at the edge of town. A new online petition demanding that community leaders find an urgent solution to the toxic smoke coming from this dump had amassed nearly 2,000 signatures at press time. 

“The morning I started the petition, I was lying in bed and my whole room stunk of garbage,” recalled Vivianne Sheshamush. “It just made me so frustrated feeling like I was helpless, that the air coming into my house was filled with toxic smoke and that my children were sleeping and also smelling it. That was when I decided it was enough.”

Community members have complained of the dump smoke for many years and expressed concerns that waste from the site has been blowing into nearby Hudson Bay. The site’s proximity with residential areas is an ongoing public health issue. Its proximity to the airport, the community’s only access point for most of the year, has also been identified as a safety issue due to collisions between birds and planes.

“I know families have talked of their loved ones who suffer with asthma having a harder time breathing on those days when they light the fire,” Sheshamush told the Nation. “The dump is currently 750 metres away from the nearest house, a house that has a child in there. The mother said it was so bad that sometimes she sees ash and she doesn’t let her son play outside.”

The Cree Health Board issued a public health advisory in 2017 reminding residents with heart or lung disease, Elders, children and pregnant women to limit their exposure to dump fire smoke by staying indoors with doors and windows closed, and air exchangers turned off. These recommendations are proving challenging to follow in the summertime heat.

“It’s been really hot up here and a lot of people don’t have air conditioners or fans,” said Sheshamush. “They open their windows to try to get a breeze in their house. The whole town has no choice but to breathe in all this toxic air. They light it three times a week year-round.”

The landfill site, built by the Canadian Army in the 1950s, is owned and operated by Kuujjuarapik as it is located on Category 1 Inuit land. According to documents from the Kativik Environmental Quality Commission, a project to relocate the dump was first launched over 20 years ago when the threshold of airborne toxicity had already been exceeded. 

Whapmagoostui began site selection for a new landfill in 2010, in collaboration with engineering consultants Stantec. The Cree Nation Government mandated Stantec to conduct a field investigation on the chosen site in 2017 located 5 km north of community limits in Category 1A Cree land, which would be connected to the main road via a proposed access road.

“We’re very glad that the gravel will commence next year in order to make our new dump site,” said Marty Visitor from the Kuujjuarapik municipal office. “There’s been a bunch of federal and provincial roadblocks. It’s always been Quebec and Canada duking it out with land issues and we face the consequences.”

As the new access road crosses both Cree and Inuit territory, there had been a longstanding conflict about which costs would be covered by the federal or provincial governments, Visitor explained. 

Construction on the access road will commence in 2021 with the new landfill expected to be ready for operation in the following year. Although Sheshamush alleged that the area’s Cree and Inuit sides often fail to collaborate on common issues, Visitor insisted they are working together to resolve this one.

“We’ve been in collaboration with the Crees, working together on this file,” said Visitor. “They will be running the new landfill. We would like the issue to be fixed as soon as possible.”

Kuujjuarapik will be responsible for closure of the existing site, which is near capacity. It is commonly referred to as “Canadian Tire” by both communities because its bulky waste platform makes it easy for citizens to salvage hardware and other materials they may be seeking. 

“A lot of people get goods there,” said Reggie Tomatuk, the Cree Health Board’s environmental health program officer. “A couple of friends collected wood and made a huge cabin not far from the community. We discourage people from collecting garbage. We have to reduce the amount we create.”

Tomatuk said the community is working to reduce garbage by bringing in large recycling boxes with existing programs to recycle batteries and chemicals. While the current site divides waste into separate sections, he believes there is much room for improvement with the new dump and cites Wemindji as a model to emulate.

“We need to work as one community together with education so we can help recycle all the community’s waste,” Tomatuk told the Nation. “We have to find a better way. Dumps are slowly improving from the way it was done in the past. I can’t wait to see the new dump site – it will be all subdivided for different products.”

Designating the new site as a “northern landfill” means garbage burning will continue, which expands its lifespan and improves pest control. As Whapmagoostui recognizes that open burning results in the release of hazardous compounds, they are planning to introduce waste diversion programs that will allow burning to be phased out. 

“Are people still going to have no choice but to breathe in these fumes?” Sheshamush responded. “What other alternatives can there be to stop us from putting all these pollutants into our environment? They’re doing temporary solutions that turn into a long-term thing. We’ve been promised change for years now.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.