As the smog from the
burning Beetham dump (euphemistically called a landfill, which it is
not) rapped its toxic fumes around Port-of- Spain, I seethed with rage.
In typical Third World fashion, the Ministry of National Security and
Solid Waste Management Company Ltd (SWMCOL) responded in a disingenuous
way with platitudes of a rot that is as wide as it is deep, of a rot
they are fully aware of. What they did was as ridiculous as putting on a
Band-Aid on a person bleeding to death.
Three years ago, the
management of Solid Waste Management Company Ltd insisted in a
television interview with me that the nation’s dumps were safe and not
poisoning our produce or water table. At the time, I interviewed Azad
Mohammed, scientist, and lecturer at UWI who said that plastics (we dump
up to 50 million plastic bottles every month), Styrofoam, paper and
electronics can generate “some of the most deadly toxins ever studied.”
Three years ago, I
repeatedly reported in this space and in the Guardian series, Cleaning
up the Mess, that our dumps really are dumps and not landfills contrary
to claims by the Solid Waste Management Company Ltd.
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, and possibly other
dangerous things. They do not prevent the waste from coming into contact
with the ground, they are full of rats, roaches and other vermin, and
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. Contrary to the management
of Solid Waste Management Company Ltd, our scientists and waste disposal
specialists have been saying the same thing. The toxins from the Beetham
dump could be harming us all.
Dr Azad Mohammed told us
over three years back, “By 2009 it was estimated that the waste
deposited in three of the major landfills increased by about 193 per
Here are the grim facts
gathered from Dr Mohammed:
• Solid waste generated in
T&T is currently deposited in one of five landfill facilities at Beetham,
Guanapo, Forres Park, Guapo, and Studly Park in Tobago. The largest of
these is the Beetham landfill, an unlined facility located southeast of
Port-of-Spain, and on the northern edge of the Caroni Swamp, the largest
mangrove swamp in Trinidad. This means that the water table is
relatively high. This presents a unique environmental problem as the
waste deposited and leachate from the landfill can easily enter into the
swamp and near shore coastal environments.
• Adverse impacts from the
dump include pollution (such as contamination of groundwater) off
gassing of methane, a toxic greenhouse gas generated by decaying organic
wastes; smoke and ash (generated from uncontrolled fires); harbouring
disease vectors such as rats, mosquitoes and flies; injuries to wildlife
(from leached toxic materials); and dust, odour, and noise pollution.
• Landfill gases (in our
case, ‘dump’ gases) consist primarily of methane (40-60 per cent) which
is generated from rotting biodegradable garbage. Methane is a
‘greenhouse gas’ that contributes to global warming and is 21 times more
potent in its greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide. Landfills are the
largest man-made source of methane (37 per cent globally). The European
Union has moved to ban biodegradable material from landfills, separating
and composting these materials under controlled conditions, thus
significantly reducing methane production. These materials are recycled
into compost, a valuable resource for fertilising soil.
• Non-methane organic
compounds emanating from the dumps include toxic chemicals such as
benzene, toluene, chloroform, vinyl chloride, carbon tetrachloride, and
1,1,1 trichloroethane. When products containing halogenated chemicals
(plastics, Styrofoam, white paper, electronics) undergo low temperature
combustion they can generate highly toxic compounds such as dioxins and
furans, the most toxic chemicals ever studied. While plastic usually
burns in an open-air fire, the dioxins remain after combustion and
either float off into the atmosphere, or may remain in the ash where it
can be leached down into groundwater when rain falls.
• The ash and smoke
particles can become aerosolised, enter the atmosphere and be
transported away from the site, as is common in Port-of-Spain when fires
are burning in the Beetham dump. These suspended materials may
contribute significantly to respiratory stress in people.
Government of T&T over the past 15 years has failed to enact any
legislation that deals with recycling. Over four years back, when this
Government came into power, several MPs told the population on national
television that the Government’s waste management legislation was
imminent. That hasn’t happened. We are mired in a dump of platitudes.
The city is opaque with the toxic fumes of pre-election deception. A
portent of things to come.