Piles of tires at Hay River's landfill. Photo supplied by Glenn Smith
More than 100,000 old tires are gradually being torn to shreds in Hay River, where the stockpile had been considered a growing fire hazard.
Destruction of the enormous tire graveyard comes as Hay River struggles to deal with an almost-full landfill and a lack of readily available sites for a new one.
This year’s flooding only made the situation worse. In the words of an NWT water resource officer, May’s flood “led to a large influx of unsegregated and likely hazardous waste in the landfill.”
“This influx has reduced the capacity of the landfill and life expectancy of the facility and also poses an increased fire risk. Better management and segregation of wastes is required,” officer Joshua Gauthier wrote in July.
Glenn Smith, the Town of Hay River’s senior administrator, says the town is doing everything it can to free up landfill space, manage the facility appropriately – and destroy a tire pile that was threatening to achieve landmark status.
“We estimate our stockpile is around 100,000 to 140,000 tires. I’d suggest we have the largest stockpile in the NWT, although I’m not sure. It’s a big amount and it’s a big risk,” Smith told Cabin Radio.
The true number of tires may be even higher. While contractors have been shredding them since late August, councillors were told at a meeting last week that there are “a lot more tires than originally anticipated out there.”
Smith says tackling the highly flammable tire pile was an environmental and financial priority, pointing to a landfill fire in 2019 that cost the town more than $1 million.
“If that fire in 2019 had spread into those tires, it would have been almost an environmental catastrophe and a big cost to fight it,” he said. The landfill is not an insured asset and the town failed in its bid to receive disaster assistance funding after the 2019 fire.
Gauthier, the NWT water resource officer, did not sound fully convinced by the town’s tire shredding plan in a July email recorded on the territory’s regulatory public registry.
“Even though the town plans to shred and reposition this material at the facility, it still poses an extreme fire risk,” Gauthier wrote.
Smith, though, believes the shredded tires will be far less of a threat.
“Tires have an oxygen content to them and can really create a significant fire but, once you start shredding them, you lose the oxygen element of the stockpile,” he said, adding the town can use the shredded tires as a form of fill and in some types of construction, like local road works.
“We’re looking at using it potentially for embankments in areas such as our lagoon, and we think we might have uses for it at a new landfill as cell lining,” he said.
“You can use shredded tires for cover on landfills, it’s commonly used as cover material. So far, we’re shying away from that, just given the volatility of our landfill and the potential risk it could expose.”
No land to fill
The main problem with using the shredded tires at a new landfill is the absence of a new landfill.
Right now, the town doesn’t have anywhere to put one – an increasingly urgent matter given the old landfill’s many problems and lack of space.
“The landfill has been near end-of-life for years. It’s essentially at 99 percent of its useful life and we’ve been active in trying to look for a new landfill for decades. We continue to try to advance those conversations and apply for land and funding to do that,” said Smith.
In the NWT, numerous communities have found their search for landfill space to be complicated by the territory’s various unsettled land claims. Hay River also has plenty of swampy regions that are best avoided, and needs to find the $10 million or more a new landfill would cost.
“At the same time, we’re left dealing with an asset that’s a high risk to the community,” Smith continued.
“During the flooding, a lot more waste was added to the facility that isn’t budgeted for – and we’re left managing it.”
In a bid to keep the existing landfill going, Hay River has been working to divert as much material as it can.
Smith said about 800 tons of steel was recently removed and sent to southern recycling firms. A Department of Municipal and Community Affairs program that uses federal funding will help to remove some of the remaining steel and various forms of hazardous waste. A composting program in partnership with the town’s seniors’ society has helped to divert 10,000 tons of organic waste.
“The diversion and recycling helps,” said Smith, “but we’re very close to end-of-life.”
Work to shred the tires is expected to conclude by the end of the month.