Dumps-Health Hazards or man made disasters?


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Category: Health 12 Sep 10

To tell you the truth when our Guardian Multimedia crew went to the Beetham ‘La Basse’ and the morning sunshine abruptly switched to black clouds, followed by heavy rainfall, it looked like a dump. We drove past a rough, tree-lined path and stopped at the gate. I was asked to go “upstairs” to meet the manager. Our purpose was verified and we were followed (until the rain shook them off) by Solid Waste personnel. I was impressed with their efficiency until we drove deeper in. It felt surreal: Sitting in an air-conditioned van in the middle of a sea of garbage, our view blurred by thick raindrops on glass. A seamless darkness spread from sky to earth. I felt the exposed skin on my arm redden. There was an itch on my neck. One of us coughed. It must have been psychosomatic. It was the stuff of nightmares. Rain pelting down on a field of garbage as far as the eye could see: paper, plastic bottles, food cartons, cardboard boxes, broken plastic chairs, rusting electronics, steel drums, ripped books, paper, bottles, plastic bottles, cans, bleach bottles.


Dave Gajadhar, the logistics manager for Carib Glass who brought us here tells us of what happens when the residue of soft drink bottles, rotting food mingles. Rats. Cockroaches. That explained the sudden scurrying. My skin crawled. The CNC3 Cameraman Joel Allick tried to get some shots, by turning down the glass but the camera would have got damaged in the rain. A SWMCOL truck noisily rumbled past, narrowly missing a skinny mongrel, forcing Dave to reverse his lightweight van in a hurry. I could hear the clicking from Keith Matthews, the Guardian Photographer’s camera. I looked at the spot where he had trained his camera: A line of black turkey vultures, corbeaux on a stretch of stone. And then the moving figures, hunched, shapeless, Dickensian.


It was difficult to tell the men from the women, scavengers dressed in layers of rags, seemingly sleepwalking, unaware of the trucks off-loading garbage, untouched by the pelting rain, filling up bags, merged into the grim landscape. The crew did the shoot in the rain, using umbrellas, on the back of the truck. In the past 13 weeks since we began the multimedia series I had gathered the following from interviews and guest columnists. We dump over 50 million plastic bottles, and a million glass bottles every month. A draft beverage bill which would have taxed manufacturers on plastics to encourage recycling has been squashed and gathering dust for a decade. There is no Waste Management, or recycling legislation.


The Guanapo and Beetham dumps have reached their capacity. The proximity of the Beetham dump to the Caroni swamp means that toxins could be entering our water table, polluting the swamp’s ecosystem and poisoning our water and produce, and contributing to cancer and other lifestyle diseases. The Solid Waste Management Company, a government agency has this on its website: “The Beetham and Guanapo sites are major concerns. They are located in areas that are not suitable for landfill operations. These two sites could have negative impacts on the surface and groundwater resources of the surrounding communities. The Beetham landfill is too close to the capital city of Port-of-Spain and the highly urbanised east-west corridor.


The Beetham landfill presents a unique environmental problem as the waste deposited in this environment continually subsides into the swamp.”

The government agency is essentially admitting defeat. So who do we turn to? I interviewed the executive manager of SWMCOL, Alban Scott a knowledgeable officer who gently derided me during the television interview for using the word “dump” on our environmental series. “Please” he said, “It’s a landfill.” Then came Gideon’s reprimand. I checked. Hanoomansingh was right. We don’t have landfills here. According to an environmental scientist, this is the difference between a landfill and a dump: “A modern landfill is lined with waterproof materials, such as clay and plastic, that prevent rainwater and other liquids that ooze out of waste from getting into the environment and contaminating the ground. They have drains that capture liquids which are treated and water wells that are monitored for leaks.


“Landfills are covered each day with soil to keep birds, insects, rats, and other animals from moving in. The daily covering also keeps water and air out of the trash, which keeps the material from rotting too fast and creating bad smells. “Dumps, on the other hand, are just that—a big hole or a big pile of garbage. They do not prevent the waste from garbage and possibly other dangerous things coming into contact with the ground, they are full of rats, roaches, and other vermin, and they stink. “Hazardous waste may not be dumped in the Beetham, but a dump is a dump. It is unlined, unfenced, without proper drainage and yes it stinks. This is the dream, as articulated by Allan De Boehmler from Waste Disposals Limited who believes T&T should aim to reduce at least 50 per cent of our waste by recycling.


He wrote this in last Thursday’s Guardian guest column. “All residents have to learn to separate their paper, plastic; aluminium and glass waste and place it in a separate transparent recycling bag. On recycling...collection day, workers will easily identify which are the bags to collect. The truck loaded with bagged recyclables goes to a processing centre and dumps its load onto a conveyor. The waste is sorted and shipped for recycling.” The new government brought a lot of hope for change. We hope it is not dashed, that the “feasibility” study on recycling mentioned in the budget is expedited and the increased litter fines enforced. In the meantime, the dump remains the dump, and a growing health hazard that may soon become a man-made disaster.



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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur