Mired in a dump of platitudes


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Category: Reflections 26 Apr 15

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 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. 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 cent.”

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.

The 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.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur