Slave Lake experience suggests fire cleanup to test Fort McMurray

Cleaning up Fort McMurray's wildfire will test the city's ability to handle everything from asbestos to rotting food and leave a lasting legacy of higher costs and dangerous residue.

EDMONTON — Cleaning up Fort McMurray’s wildfire will test the city’s ability to handle everything from asbestos to rotting food and leave a lasting legacy of higher costs and dangerous residue.

So says Tom Moore — and he should know. Moore manages the landfill at Slave Lake, where one-third of the town was gutted by a fire five years ago this month.

“It overwhelms you,” Moore recalled Thursday. “I received, in about four months time, about three years of waste into my facility.”

Moore said the landfill took in about 40,000 tonnes of waste after the fire destroyed more than 400 buildings. The influx forced the dump to expand as well as to buy bigger equipment and upgrade its roads.

“There are landfills in Alberta that receive hundreds of thousands of tonnes every year,” said Moore. “But if all of a sudden they’re receiving four times that, in a short period of time, that’s devastating.”

Most of the concrete and metal was recycled, but much of the rest of that waste was problematic.

“All of the houses have been shut off from their power. Now you’ve got refrigerators full of food. You have to handle that safely so nobody gets sick and nobody gets exposed to that.”

More than 4,200 refrigerators and freezers were hauled to the Slave Lake landfill. Moore, who’s also the informal chairman of waste officials who have all experienced disaster recovery, said High River, Alta., sent 7,500 refrigerators full of food to its landfill after the 2013 flood.

Then there’s the ash. Slave Lake’s ash, all of which went to the landfill, was tainted with levels of heavy metals including lead and arsenic that were many times higher than guidelines.

“We made sure all our operators had the right type of respirators,” Moore said. “Every day we changed out the filters in the cabs on the equipment.”

Moore said that ash is still leaching toxins. Contaminants haven’t been found in groundwater off the site, but workers have to drain and test fluids that collect in the bottom of the landfill twice a year instead of once annually — at twice the expense.

The municipality had to spend about $2 million upgrading its landfill after the fire.

“Right now, we’re actually having some financial issues,” Moore said.

“We had to dig this cell, we had to buy equipment and now we’ve got some big debt that we’ve got to pay that we don’t have revenue for. It is a financial burden.”

Any problems experienced by Slave Lake are likely to be much more severe in Fort McMurray, which lost more than 2,400 buildings.

“They’re going to receive probably five times their normal waste going into their facility for a while,” said Moore.

Scott Long of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency said Thursday that officials are already considering waste disposal.

“All of these things are being looked at right now by a large team of specialists in conjunction with Regional Emergency Operations Centre,” he said at a press briefing. “We’re doing this as safely and quickly as we can.”

Moore said he’s already been in touch with Fort McMurray municipal officials to offer advice. His group has people with experience from floods to fires to accidental deaths in landfills.

“After our disaster and the one in High River, we said we need some group that can be available to call and help through these disasters. We had nobody when we had ours.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and US Vice-President Joe Biden walk down the Hall of Honour on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, December 9, 2016. If Joe Biden’s decision to kill off Keystone XL is supposed to sound the death knell for Canada-U.S. relations, you wouldn’t know it from the newly minted president’s call sheet. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
In wake of decision to kill Keystone XL, Biden’s first foreign-leader call? Trudeau

Biden rescinded former president Donald Trump’s approval of the US$8-billion cross-border pipeline expansion

Protesting farmers and their families gather around a bonfire to mark the harvest festival, which is called Lohri, on a blocked highway in protest against new farm laws on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. Changes in India’s farm laws could potentially open up one of the world’s most populous markets and are being closely watched by Canada’s agricultural and economic sectors, say experts. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Altaf Qadri
Changes in Indian farm laws could benefit Canada, experts say

Independent committee of experts to negotiate with opponents of legislation

A sign on a shop window indicates the store is closed in Ottawa, Monday March 23, 2020. The Canadian Federation of Independent Business is raising its estimate for the number of businesses that are considering the possibility of closing permanently. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
CFIB raises estimate of small businesses at risk of closing permanently

One in six Canadian small business owners seriously contemplating shutting down

Former Alberta Premier Rachel Notley shakes hands with Joel Ward, former Red Deer College President and CEO, as Notley announces that the college is on the path to grant degrees. Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan says university status is not a necessary condition for offering degrees. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Future of Red Deer University increasingly uncertain

MLA’s college update says RDC more like SAIT and NAIT than a university

Lucas Berg, left, with the backpacks filled with essential items he donated to the Red Deer Mustard Seed Jan. 19, 2021. (Photo submitted)
Central Alberta teenager donates filled 20 backpacks to Red Deer Mustard Seed

Lucas Berg, 14, of Ponoka County says he ‘just wants to help people’

A man wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus looks into a souvenir shop displaying various of stickers, one of them showing a former U.S. President Donald Trump caricature, in Beijing, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. China imposed sanctions on nearly 30 former Trump administration officials moments after they left office on Wednesday. In a statement released just minutes after President Joe Biden was inaugurated, Beijing slapped travel bans and business restrictions on Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, national security adviser Robert O’Brien and U.N. ambassador, Kelly Craft. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
China hopes for co-operation, better relations under Biden

U.S. need to relaunch co-operation in a number of areas

German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks to the media during a press conference on the current situation in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. Topics include the decisions taken by the federal and state governments to combat the Corona pandemic, the Chancellor’s upcoming virtual consultations with the heads of state and government of the European Union (EU), and relations with the United States following the inauguration of the new president. (Michael Kappeler/Pool via AP)
Germany’s Merkel stands by Russia pipeline that US opposes

Washington says the project makes Europe more dependent on Russian gas and hurt European energy security

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, left, greets International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel during their meeting in Minsk, Belarus, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. (Nikolai Petrov/BelTA Pool Photo via AP)
Lithuania offers to replace Belarus as hockey worlds co-host

Tournament scheduled to run May 21 to June 6

Canadian international midfielder Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare, left, is seen in action against St. Louis FC in an undated handout photo. Gagnon-Lapare has joined HFX Wanderers FC on a two-year deal with a club option for 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-HFX Wanderers FC
Canadian international Jeremy Gagnon-Lapare joins CPL’s HFX Wanderers FC

Gagnon-Lapare most recently with Ottawa Fury FC and St. Louis FC

An Italian police officer stands by a copy of the “Salvator Mundi” (Savior of the World) by Leonardo da Vinci, in Naples, Italy, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Italian police have recovered a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s 16th century “Salvator Mundi” painting of Jesus Christ that was stolen from a Naples church without the priests even realizing it was gone. The discovery was made over the weekend when Naples police working on a bigger operation found the painting hidden in an apartment. Police chief Alfredo Fabbrocini said the owner offered a “less than credible” explanation that he had “casually” bought it at a small market. (Italian Police via AP)
Italian police find stolen copy of Leonardo ‘Salvator Mundi’

500-year-old copy of Leonardo da Vinci painting

Kamala Harris is sworn in as vice president by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor as her husband Doug Emhoff holds the Bible during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)
Inauguration fashion: Purple, pearls, American designers

Joe Biden wore navy blue suit and overcoat by Ralph Lauren

Adam Hadwin, of Canada, chips to the second green during the first round of the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Matt Slocum
Adam Hadwin hopes to hit reset button in 2021 starting with American Express

Adam Hadwin hopes to hit reset button in 2021 starting with American Express

Most Read