Don’t eat the brown snow

Flushing raw sewage into the seas around Greenland isn’t as harmless as it once was

Never mind the huskies, watch out where the humans go (📸: Asiaq)

Hector Martin

Travellers to Greenland who have accepted a visit to the local ‘chocolate factory’ are likely to have sniffed out the joke even before arriving at their destination.

That is because chocolate factory is a nickname for the pumping station where human refuse is flushed out to sea. The stench is overpowering. Nevertheless, it has long been argued that the practice did not present a health risk to humans, since it was assumed that the sewage was washed out to sea, where it broke down naturally.

New research from the Centre for Arctic Technology, however, shows that may not be the case.

The first problem, according to Pernille Erlend Jensen, who led the study, is that there may be times when tides prevent the sewage from making it to the open water. When that happens, it could spread into coastal waters deemed safe for recreational and commercial activities, such as fishing.

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Collecting human waste from households is a necessity in some areas in Greenland where sewerage and septic systems cannot be installed. Instead, several times a week, waste tanks are emptied and delivered to the pumping station, which releases the contents into the water.

For example, in Sisimiut, Greenland’s second largest settlement, with a population of 5,500, about 25% of homes are not connected to the sewerage system. And those that are are connected to a system that leads the waste to the pumping station.

In addition to finding that the peninsula separating the pumping station’s outlet and the harbour did not provide as much protection as once thought, Jensen’s research revealed a second problem: the makeup and volume of sewage today means that pumping it into the water untreated is no longer a viable option.

In the past, Jensen told, a Danish science website, waste coming from Greenland’s isolated settlements was made up primarily of organic matter. Nowadays, sewage contains chemicals, typically from medicine, that cannot be broken down in nature.

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As evidence of the problem, the research has discovered the existence of micro-organisms that are resistant to anti-biotics, and which Jensen feared could be transferred to humans.

In the past, Greenland health authorities have made it clear that improved sanitation was a necessity, but underscored that they were satisfied with the progress that was being made, particularly in light of the country’s economic constraints.

Jensen’s research, however, has identified a number of low-cost methods for dealing with sewage. One of them, mixing it with organic household waste, had been inspired by another do-it-yourself septic solution, in which bags of waste are stored outside during the winter.

The method is particularly beneficial if the waste was allowed to thaw and freeze repeatedly, since the process reduced the amount of harmful bacteria.

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Another treatment method proposed as part of Jensen’s project involved removing solids from sewage, either mechanically or using chemicals, and releasing only liquid sewage into the sea.

Before a plan can be put into place, Jensen said a use for the solids must be identified, but here, too, her research pointed to possible solutions: either compost it or convert it to biogas.

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

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