Landfill Fires Constitute a Serious Public Health Concern

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Landfill Fires Constitute a Serious Public Health Concern

Pond Island Landfill Wednesday fire. Pond Island Landfill Wednesday fire.

SINT MAARTEN/COMMENTARY - On Wednesday, another fire took place at the Landfill on Pond Island.  It was a big one based on the dark billowing smoke which lasted a couple of hours.  I’ve noticed that when there isn’t a fire, there is a constant smell of smoke in the air when you drive to Little Bay and on the Pondfill, depending on what is the prevailing wind direction of the day.

The Pond Island Landfill is right in the heart of Philipsburg, and is the number one environmental issue facing the country.  On Wednesday, there were seven cruise ships in port with thousands of passengers on the island.  This was not a pretty sight for them to see and experience.

Fires, combustible and poisonous gasses, have been pointed out as the risks and nuisances of a landfill posing a threat to the environment and human health.  Daily capping – covering landfill waste with layers of soil designed to isolate and stop the spread of contaminants, is required, but spontaneous combustion of decomposing waste involving methane from landfill gas will continue until a permanent solution is found.

Landfill fires produce toxic smoke and gasses.  The danger and level of toxicity of these gasses depend on the length of exposure a person experiences and on the type of material that is burning.  Landfill fires also emit dioxins.  Exposure to high levels of dioxins has been linked to cancer, skin rashes, liver damage, and reproductive and developmental disorders.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s 2014 draft review of dioxin reassessment concluded that there is no safe level of exposure to dioxin even at extremely low levels, a wide range of serious health effects are possible, including increased risk of diabetes. 

It has been reported that many of the toxic fumes produced have the capacity to cause a genetic mutation that can lead to cancer in future generations.  Children can be at much greater risk because of their body size; they inhale more air per pound than adults.  Children’s bodies absorb a larger dose of toxins because their nervous systems are not fully developed.

The Cayman Islands has been discussing solutions with respect to their own landfill challenges, but they have now reached the final stages in resolving the issue of waste management.  A contract was signed on 24 January 2017 with a specialist legal team to take forward the plans for the proposed Integrated Solid Waste Management System (ISWMS).

Based on a report by environmental consultancy firm Amec Foster Wheeler and financial analysis by consultancy firm KPMG, Cayman Islands Government plans to create a public-private partnership for a new state-of-the-art solid waste management system. This will include the remediation of the current landfills, with recycling, composting and a waste-to-energy approach at the heart of operations.

The procurement of the ISWMS is moving forward based on the project being executed on a “design, build, finance, operate and maintain” basis. The Cayman government went through a pre-qualification process last autumn to shortlist companies that could construct and operate the new waste management system for a 25-year period.

Bidders which were selected have now been asked to outline their ISWMS proposals, and a preferred bidder is expected to be announced by the end of April 2017.

The Pond Island Landfill will remain as part of the country’s integrated solid waste management system which should also include recycling besides a waste to energy plant.

The longer it takes in reaching a decision about the future of the Pond Island Landfill, the longer it will take for the solution to materialize, and this means additional landfill fires can be expected for the foreseeable future.

To mitigate future fires, effective landfill management is necessary to prevent the occurrence of fires in order to protect the environment and human health.

According to  Patrick Foss-Smith, a British environmental consulting engineer specializing in landfill and underground fires: Landfill operators therefore need to be vigilant for hot deposits during the working life of landfills. Knowing their clients and their arisings, enforcing good working practices, maintaining adequate out-of-hours security and being especially vigilant during the ‘hot’ aerobic phases of the landfill lifecycle will all help to reduce the likelihood of a fire.

Roddy Heyliger

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