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Fort McMurray's genial landfill manager surfs tsunami of wildfire waste

Fred Thompson-Brown poses for a portrait amid refrigerators destined for recycling at the entrance to the landfill he manages, in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Friday, July 8, 2016. More than 11,000 refrigerators were destroyed, damaged and thrown out due to the wildfires that ravaged the town - a small part of the tonnes of waste he's responsible for seeing safely disposed of.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean McLennan
July 10, 2016 - 9:30 AM

FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - When you're pounded with the big waves, you'd better learn to surf.

"The demolition material is going to come in pretty much in a tsunami-like effect," says Fred Thompson-Brown, manager of Fort McMurray's landfill. "We've been busy throughout and it's just getting busier."

The wildfire that ravaged the oilsands city is finally under control and many of its more than 80,000 evacuees are back in their homes. Services are restored and residents are working to bring life back to normal.

But normal is a long way off for the man at the centre of a mind-bogglingly large and occasionally toxic clean-up still very much under way.

Put this in your garbage truck and haul it: A typical urban home generates between 97 and 175 tonnes of waste after a fire. Fort McMurray lost 2,400 homes and buildings.

Give or take, that's 338,400 tonnes of ash, soil, concrete, metal and miscellaneous bits and bobs — some of it as caustic as oven cleaner or loaded with toxic lead or arsenic. That's fully a third more waste than the landfill accepted in all of 2015. It'll take up to 47,000 truckloads to haul it.

If that isn't daunting enough, consider that in June, the landfill took in 11,437 fridges and freezers. All had to be emptied of rotting food, drained of their gas and crushed.

"It's not a simple commodity," deadpans Thompson-Brown, a genial Brit whose ringtone plays "The British Grenadiers."

"And they're still coming in. It's 10-years worth in six weeks."

He's earned the right to be calm. Throughout the entire blaze, the landfill was closed for exactly four days, from May 6 to May 10. By the time residents began to filter back on June 1, a lot of rubble had already been cleared and homeowners had big, empty bins waiting to haul away waste and let them rebuild.

"There was a bit of a mini-tsunami of that material," says Thompson-Brown, using a word he repeats a lot.

"All of the bins had been left for all the commercial properties that had to be cleared. All the big stores were just churning material in our direction pretty much from the get-go."

Fort McMurray's landfill was built to handle waste from not only the city, but from surrounding communities as well as nearby work camps. So it's big.

"We've got more than enough capacity and more capacity down the line," Thompson-Brown says.

It's also modern, with a system in place to collect whatever bad stuff that will inevitably leach through. That will go to the municipality's water treatment plant.

But the toxins do create challenges.

Landfill workers operate machines in closed cabs with positive air pressure, so no outside air gets in. High-efficiency filters in those cabs are changed daily. Hazmat suits are available and nobody gets on-site without a particulate filter mask.

"Guys not wearing (personal protective equipment) are basically turned around."

The massive clean-up will also escalate costs.

Federal money has already bought new dozers and compactors. Two new scales have been added and approach roads to the landfill have been rebuilt to keep truck traffic flowing. Sampling and testing for toxins will have to be tripled or quadrupled. Staff budgets will be doubled as the landfill moves to 24-7 operation.

"We're mindful of the pennies, but quite a few dollars are going to have to be spent," Thompson-Brown says.

"It's hard to quantify at the present time. The main demolition phase is still an unknown quantity."

For now, Thompson-Brown finds himself in a lull between tsunamis, after the wave of home clean-up and before the swell of demolition debris. He knows what's coming, and before long expects to see trucks dumping a load every 60 seconds for weeks — "like Heathrow on a bad day."

"It's frenetic," he says. "But it's orderly and it's going to flow."

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton. Follow him on Twitter at @row1960

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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