Answers to burning questions continue to be sought after town hall meeting
More than a month after a landfill fire on the Tsuu T’ina Nation, Calgary residents are still fuming over unanswered questions about the smoke that covered their communities.
Clouds of black smoke billowed across southwest Calgary on Feb. 8, 2012.
Residents in the communities of Evergreen, Woodlands, Woodbine and other neighbouring communities were not only concerned about the smoke and air, but what was causing the smoke — a fire in the Tsuu T’ina Nation’s landfill.
Although the fire was put out within two days, residents were concerned not only about their health, but their safety. In February, Ald. Diane Colley-Urquhart held a town hall meeting to hear the concerns from 200 residents in the area.
“The sole purpose of the meeting was to provide feedback from the community and to hear residents’ experiences about the fire,” Colley-Urquhart said.
She added that during the fire, residents had to leave homes, fumigate houses and some had experienced respiratory issues due to the smoke.
The meeting raised more questions and concerns with the fire and events that unfolded on Feb. 8. Frustrations ran high when citizens were told there were “jurisdictional issues” between the city and the Tsuu T’ina Nation, Colley-Urquhart said. Since the Tsuu T’ina Nation is private land, the Calgary Fire Department was not requested to help assist in the fire.
Responding to health concerns
In hopes of answering more questions about the fire, Colley-Urquhart held a town meeting with a panel of guests on Mar. 29.
Guest Chad Schappy, an emergency response officer for the Alberta government, led the discussion by outlining his role during the landfill fire to the audience.
Schappy says that one of his main roles was to monitor and report the air quality of the smoke from the fire to Alberta Health Services. Air measurement devices such as volatile organic compound canisters and a mobile air monitoring lab were used in various communities surrounding the fire to measure the air quality.
One criticism from citizens was the amount of time it took for the Alberta Environment Support and Emergency Response Team, or ASERT, which is the group deployed by the government to manage the fire, to arrive on the scene. The mobile lab, a large van, came down from Edmonton. By the time the team was in Calgary to measure the air quality, it had been over 16 hours since the fire started.
Schappy says that the “[Volatile organic compound] canister was placed by the landfill fire so that it could give a baseline measurement of the air quality at the site.”
A citizen asked how Schappy was able to get on the Tsuu T’ina Nation, since the Calgary Fire Department was not permitted on the site.
However, Schappy responded that the Tsuu T’ina Nation, Redwood Meadows and Rockyview fire departments helped put out the landfill fire.
“We asked,” Schappy said. “We spoke to a representative from the Tsuu T’ina Nation, and they allowed us on the site.”
After measuring the baseline air quality, it was found that the chemical levels were not a health concern to officials.
“It was found that the primary exposure of concern was wood smoke,” Schappy said.
Dr. Brent Friesen, Medical Officer of Health from Alberta Health Services, was also a guest at the town hall meeting. He says that the complaints and symptoms people had in the community due to the smoke are similar to wood smoke symptoms, including irritation in the eyes, nose and throat.
He says health services issued an air advisory on Feb. 8, because of the large amounts of smoke in the Calgary and Tsuu T’ina Nation area. The advisory informed those at risk, such as seniors, children and people with respiratory or other health issues, to stay indoors.
Although the smoke was thick, health centres, including the South Calgary Health Centre, the Rockyview Hospital and Alberta Children’s Hospital, did not receive a fluctuation of people admitted in emergency due to smoke inhalation.
In his presentation, Friesen said that on Feb. 8, “Health Canada and the (First Nations and Inuit Health Board) confirms construction waste and wood” was found at the landfill fire, and added that no hazardous waste, tires or treated wood was found.
The findings and results did not bode well with the 50 citizens participating in the meeting, as many piped up to say there was more than wood in that landfill.
“We don’t like to play the jurisdiction card,” says Greg Carter, ASERT director. “But we don’t know what is going on in that landfill.”
Despite the results, citizens still had questions about how the response team, health services, and the city will prepare for future landfill fires.
ASERT will be completing a post analysis report of the data, impact statements and of the events that occurred on the day of the fire, Schappy said. The analysis will highlight the areas that need to be addressed, such as faster response times and how this can be achieved if a similar event occurs in the future. Eventually, the report will be available to the public and stakeholders.
Local authorities should also be involved in finding a solution, regardless of “jurisdictional issues,” Carter said.
Tsuu T’ina representatives absent
Ald. Colley-Urquhart said that there should be more communication between Calgary’s mayor and city council and the Tsuu T’ina Nation’s chief and council — a sentiment which was reflected in her questionnaires issued to community residents.
Yet noticeably absent from the town hall meeting was a representative from the Tsuu T’ina Nation . In an email statement, Morten Paulsen, spokesperson for the Tsuu T’ina Nation said “it does not appear that there was an invitation for Tsuu T’ina officials to attend the recent event (on March 29).”
Chief Sandford Big Plume of the Tsuu T’ina Nation released a press release on Feb. 22, 2012 explaining the landfill fire.
“The landfill did not have toxic materials on site as it is considered to be “a ‘clean-fill’ – a site used to contain either organic materials or waste from buildings that have been demolished,” Big Plume said, adding waste from those buildings came from Calgary..
When the landfill caught on fire, Paulsen said that they did not need fire trucks to put out the fire.
“In order to put out the fire, we needed heavy machinery to cover the landfill,” Paulsen says. This is why the Tsuu T’ina Nation, Redwood Meadows and Rockyview Fire Departments were asked to help put out the fire. “We didn’t need an excess of fire trucks from the city, as it wasn’t a building fire. We needed machinery from other departments.”
Since the landfill fire, Chief Big Plume said that he “has taken the extraordinary and proactive step of temporarily shutting down the landfill until environmental reports are submitted to the Nation.”
He said that prior to the fire, the site had been fully permitted by Indian Affairs and Northern Development. However due to procedural issues, the renewal of the permit was delayed.
“Finally, it would have been my pleasure to present these proactive measures at the town hall (meeting) held by a City of Calgary alderman (on Feb. 21),” he said. “However, no invitation to attend was extended, so it was not my place to cross jurisdictions and intrude on that meeting.
“That alderman did not make contact with Tsuu T’ina during or after the fire, nor did she return our call offering an update during the fire,” he said. “As such, I find her claims to be interested in greater communication with Tsuu T’ina surprising.”
Ald. Colley-Urquhart did not return phone calls or emails to comment about the Tsuu T’ina Nation press release.
At the town hall meeting, Ald. Colley-Urquhart said she will determine the next step with regards to the landfill issue upon reviewing the questionnaires.