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Millions of litres of harmful contaminants - including sewage and jet fuel - have been spilled across great swaths of Canada's pristine Arctic in recent years, an analysis has found.

A classified government database reveals the alarming extent to which Canada's North has been an accidental dumping ground for dangerous liquids. And it shows one of the most frequent offenders is the federal government.

This never-before-released information comes to light as the Harper government reviews its Arctic environmental-protection rules in the wake of a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

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The Arctic spills to date have been smaller than the giant BP disaster off the U.S. coast, but are a reminder of the continuing threat from development to one of Canada's most vulnerable ecosystems.

The information has been kept in an environmental-enforcement database called the National Enforcement Management Information System and Intelligence System, or NEMISIS. Federal enforcement officers use the database to track and prosecute polluters and environmental lawbreakers.

It took The Canadian Press two years and a complaint to the information commissioner to obtain the data from Environment Canada under the Access to Information Act.

The news agency then created its own spills database using the government information, which covers the period from January, 2004, to last November.

The analysis found 260 spills in the North over five years. There were 137 spills in the Northwest Territories, 82 in Nunavut and 41 in the Yukon.

The biggest spill happened in Nunavut two years ago. Residents of Hall Beach marked Canada Day in 2008 with a dike failure that released 13.5 million litres of sewage in their remote hamlet.

Environment Canada says sewage seeped out of a lagoon into a wetlands area. The sewage didn't make it into any bodies of water where fish could be affected.

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Hall Beach resident Jayco Simonie recalls that the hamlet dumped gravel in the leaking sewage lagoon to contain the spill.

"The water was seeping under, but the solid stuff was kept inside because of the gravel put in there," he said.

Some spills took weeks or even months to clean up, while others were dealt with in a day or less.

In one case, an unspecified amount of diesel seeped from a container in the Yukon for 2,013 days - more than five years - before someone finally plugged the leak.

Other significant spills included:

- Four million litres of silt water discharged when equipment failed at a Diavik Diamond Mines plant in the Northwest Territories in May, 2008. Environment Canada says there weren't any chemicals in the water.

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- Another Diavik Diamond Mines spill last May in which 500,000 litres of an unknown substance leaked from a pipeline in Yellowknife.

- 300,000 litres of sewage flowed out of a sewer pipe in Inuvik, NWT, in February, 2008.

- Another 250,000 litres of sewage leaked from a municipal sewage-treatment plant in Tungsten, NWT, in February, 2006.

- A sewer overflow in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, released 600,000 litres in April, 2007.

Two companies, Northern Transportation Company Ltd. and Miramar Hope Bay Ltd., have pleaded guilty to violating the Fisheries Act and paid fines for discharging diesel fuel in the North. The Environment Canada database identifies all other companies as "responsible parties" for the spills.

There are many instances in which the database doesn't say how much time it took to clean up the mess.

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Indeed, the government's tracking system is riddled with blank entries. Often it doesn't say how much of a contaminant has been spilled. Sometimes even the name of the responsible party isn't known.

The head of Environment Canada's environmental enforcement branch, Manon Bombardier, said her staff enters information into the NEMISIS database, often after speaking to provincial officials.

Sometimes information that doesn't fall within Environment Canada's mandate might not be entered into the database, she said by way of explanation for the blank entries. Ms. Bombardier acknowledged there may be other reasons data are missing, but she didn't offer any. The department later followed up with an e-mail saying NEMISIS "is often being improved and updated to manage its effectiveness."

Ms. Bombardier insisted the department can take action against environmental offenders even if some data is missing. "For those files that merit an enforcement action, you can be sure that the information is in NEMISIS," she said.

She added the department is just one of several that can prosecute and penalize rule-breakers. Others, including Indian and Northern Affairs and the provinces and territories, have different enforcement tools at their disposal.

Ms. Bombardier said Environment Canada generally relies on the federal Fisheries Act and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to enforce environmental laws.

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The government has prosecuted two companies in the North under the Fisheries Act since 2004, she said, and two warning letters have gone out.

"People feel that prosecution is the only way that enforcement takes action," Ms. Bombardier said. "We have other tools to apply, and it all depends on their circumstances."

The federal government is blamed for 34 of the 260 spills, or about 13 per cent of all cases. The RCMP, the Coast Guard and the departments of Defence, Public Works, Fisheries and Oceans and Indian and Northern Affairs are listed as culprits.

The responsible party is unknown in 27 instances. And in another 20 cases, Environment Canada invoked a section of the Access to Information Act to shield the name of the culprit, because doing so would reveal "personal information."

Sewage spills are the biggest in terms of pure volume. But petroleum products accounted for nearly two-thirds of all northern spills. Often these are hundreds or a few thousand litres of diesel, a ubiquitous northern fuel source because it doesn't freeze easily, even in frigid temperatures.

Some people fear an environmental disaster in the Arctic could be even worse than the recent oil spill off the U.S. Gulf Coast.

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Canada's federal oil and gas regulator is reviewing Arctic safety and environmental drilling requirements after the Gulf of Mexico spill. The head of the National Energy Board wouldn't rule out a similar accident in the Arctic. "No safety regulator can possibly say that an accident will never happen," Gaetan Caron said recently.

The Canadian Press

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