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Manitoba landfill search could cost $90M, may be 'high-risk endeavour' due to asbestos: new report

Jeremy Skibicki is charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Morgan Harris, Marcedes Myran, Rebecca Contois and a fourth unidentified woman, whom community members have named Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman. (Submitted by Cambria Harris, Donna Bartlett and Darryl Contois - image credit)
Jeremy Skibicki is charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Morgan Harris, Marcedes Myran, Rebecca Contois and a fourth unidentified woman, whom community members have named Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman. (Submitted by Cambria Harris, Donna Bartlett and Darryl Contois - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

The proposed search of a Winnipeg-area landfill for the remains of two slain First Nations women could cost $90 million — about half the projected maximum in an earlier estimate — although searchers could face a "very high risk" from asbestos, a new report says.

The operational planning report is a detailed followup to a feasibility study last year into a possible search of the Prairie Green landfill. The privately run facility north of Winnipeg is where the remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran are believed to have been taken after they were killed in the spring of 2022.

The 153-page report was prepared by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and ISN (Investigative Solutions Network) Maskwa, an Indigenous-owned company that provides emergency response training and services. A copy of the report, which has not been released publicly, was obtained by The Canadian Press.

"The initiation of a thorough and complete search … demands intervention from both the Manitoba premier's office and the federal government to close gaps in bureaucratic systems and to ensure immediate funding," the report says.

"If this is not done, the search will be held off indefinitely."

The earlier study determined a search was feasible, despite some risks from asbestos and other toxic material, and would not be guaranteed to succeed. It also said a search could take up to three years and cost anywhere between $84 million and $184 million.

The new report estimates the cost is closer to $90 million, if the search can be done within one year. The document lays out specific amounts, such as $3.25 million for machinery and operators, although it adds overall costs could rise.

"This is an approximate financial overview that is expected to change over time, particularly with considerations to fluctuations in various markets, labour costs and other items that are beyond the control of those involved in the preparation of the following interrelated plans."

Achievable but 'absolutely a challenge'

Unlike some other landfills, the Prairie Green landfill accepts asbestos, a material that can cause cancer if ingested. Asbestos in the landfill is placed in thick double bags and, along with other material, is placed in pre-excavated holes and capped with a minimum two metres of soil or other waste to prevent it from escaping.

The report notes the sections, or cells, of the landfill where the women's remains are believed to have recorded a total of 712 tonnes of asbestos deposits between April 11 and June 20, 2022. About 12 tonnes of that were deposited after May 16, 2022 — the day the remains were believed to have been placed.

Excavating that area could cause the bags containing the asbestos to break and the asbestos to become friable, the report states. Friable is a term used to describe a state of being soft, crumbled and easily airborne.

"When asbestos is disturbed, it can become friable, which is a major health hazard. Consequently, an excavation and search could be a very high-risk endeavour," the report says.

An aerial view of the Prairie Green landfill in the rural municipality of Rosser in Manitoba.
An aerial view of the Prairie Green landfill in the rural municipality of Rosser in Manitoba.

An aerial view of the Prairie Green landfill in the rural municipality of Rosser in Manitoba. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The report, and the earlier feasibility study, lay out plans to control the asbestos, such as having full protective gear including respirators for the workers and keeping the landfill area wet to prevent the asbestos from becoming airborne.

Blair King, an environmental chemist with experience in asbestos investigation and remediation in British Columbia, has said risks would remain.

"Water reduces the dust risk but doesn't eliminate that risk, and the amount of water needed to keep the asbestos fibres down to a relatively safe level will be too much to allow for the operation of any of the equipment needed to move or sieve the material," King wrote in a recent blog post.

David Ganetsky, president of EnviroDoctors, an asbestos abatement company in Winnipeg, said the landfill search is "absolutely a challenge" but can be done.

"Basically you want to mist it and keep water on top of that area so that nothing becomes airborne," Ganestky said Friday.

Material from the landfill can be put in trucks with thick bin liners that can be sealed quickly and taken away, he added.

Inaction risks 'setting precedent'

The report envisions having specialized buildings in which landfill material would be put on conveyor belts and examined in a closed environment, where workers are fully protected from inhaling any toxic material.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is waiting for various governments to agree to move forward with the plan. It has asked for an immediate commitment of $20 million for initial costs, including the purchase of equipment and the construction of a search facility.

The Manitoba and federal governments said this week that they are reviewing the report.

Jeremy Skibicki has been charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of Harris, Myran and two others — Rebecca Contois, whose partial remains were found in a different landfill last year, and an unidentified woman Indigenous leaders are calling Mashkode Bizhiki'ikwe, or Buffalo Woman.

The report echoes concerns from the earlier feasibility study about what could happen if governments decide not to proceed with a search.

"By failing to act to ensure that a search occurs as soon as possible, government institutions … risk setting precedent that would-be serial killers fixated on killing First Nation women are left with the impression that not only will the bodies not be recovered, but that inaction by authorities will effectively obstruct recovery of victims."

Support is available for anyone affected by details of this case. If you require support, you can contact Ka Ni Kanichihk's Medicine Bear Counselling, Support and Elder Services at 204-594-6500, ext. 102 or 104 (within Winnipeg), or 1-888-953-5264 (outside Winnipeg).

Support is also available via Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak's Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Liaison unit at 1-800-442-0488 or 204-677-1648.

People outside Manitoba can call 1-844-413-6649, an independent, national, toll-free support call line that provides emotional assistance.