02/22/2015 04:16 EST | Updated 04/24/2015 05:59 EDT

Arctic dumps await federal decision on successful car recycling program

The metal dump sits outside the Nunavut community of Arviat, stretching exposed and uncovered for almost a kilometre over the tundra.

"Every piece of metal, every car, every washer, every dryer, every lawn chair that's come into the community has never left," said Steve England, the hamlet's senior administrative officer. "It's still here."

Arviat, on the west coast of Hudson Bay, isn't unique. Although vehicles and appliances are regularly shipped into communities across the North, few, if any, have ever been sent back south when their life is over.

Hundreds of tonnes of junked schoolbuses, dump trucks, heavy machinery, pickups, cars, ATVs, snowmobiles and household appliances clog Nunavut landfills. So do their tires, lead acid batteries, mercury switches and engine fluids.

"It is a huge issue in the North because there is no real way to recycle or bury the waste when you're basically sitting on rock," said Shawn Stucky, administrator of Gjoa Haven, on King William Island off the central Arctic coast. "It'll have to be managed — and managed in a far better way."

Last summer, a small Ontario environmental group, together with 10 business partners and local people, pulled off the first successful attempt to decommission at least some of the wrecks and send them south for recycling.

"It's one of the shining success stories," said England of Summerhill Impact's Tundra Take-Back program.

But the group's ability to extend last summer's pilot program is in doubt. With just weeks to go before Summerhill has to start planning, money is short.

Environment Canada hasn't committed to renewing the $100,000 grant that got the ball rolling last year. The group's crowdfunding drive has stalled at less than a third of its goal.

Talks are ongoing with the territorial government and three federal departments, including the Arctic economic development agency.

"We're hoping that between those groups we might be able to confirm that will be interest in seeing this program expand," said Janet Taylor of Summerhill.

Last summer's pilot project was limited to Arviat and Gjoa Haven.

Crews filled and shipped sea cans with 31 tonnes of recyclable material and hazardous waste. That includes more than 1,000 batteries, 2,000 tires and 20 barrels of fluids, all plucked off the tundra where they were sitting in the open — all at no charge to the communities.

"This program helped a lot," said Stuckey. "I wish it was ongoing."

Summerhill trained local people to do the work. Those skills remain behind, said England.

"We're trying to take what they showed us and take it to the next step, which is full remediation of the site and get all this material out of the community."

He said Arviat is already using those skills to remove hazardous materials from old vehicles before they're junked and parked at the dump.

Environment Canada says it's waiting for Summerhill to file its report from last year's program. It says the group remains eligible for funding under the EcoAction program.

Summerhill says it costs about $120,000 in cash to clean up one community. The group can leverage almost three times that in donated services.

It's also hoping to get a proper car crusher and shredding machine up in the North. That will allow it get more cars into a sea can, making the process more efficient and increasing the program's revenues from car recyclers.

Even without the government, Taylor said Summerhill can at least to publish a manual for northern communities on how to properly and safely decommission a vehicle. But with support, it could do a lot more.

All of Nunavut's communities need help with vehicles in their dumps, and Taylor said the problem is wider than that.

"We've been hearing that First Nations communities, especially those tied to ice roads, have dumps that are way worse. We would love to start in some communities south of 60."

England said there was so much interest in Tundra Take-Back at a recent meeting of Nunavut mayors that Arviat may have to wait in line for the program to return. He can hardly wait.

"Every time I look at that metal dump I think, boy, I can't wait to get something solid to get it out. To see this is like a scar on the outside of our community."