|Riverton Dump: our brave firefighters battle the result of poor planning|
By Jean Lowrie-Chin | Observer column for Mon 16 March 2015
Those media sound bites we got on the Riverton City Dump fire that caused illness and dislocation, were mostly from the fire department, and the hastily called press briefing of the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) last Friday left us with more questions than answers.
If you put in the search words ‘Riverton City Dump fire’ on the web, you will discover that this has been a recurring 12-year problem which has been the subject of multiple studies and minimal action. Indeed, an action against the NSWMA brought by four complainants as a result of the 2012 fire, finally has a Court date of December 1, 2015.
The report from the website of the Office of the Public Defender reads: “On February 6, 2012, a fire started at the Riverton City Disposal Site. The blaze lasted 6 days while the smoke abatement process lasted 17 days. The noxious emission resulted in numerous complaints being received by the Office of the Public Defender (OPD). On February 10, 2012, OPD commenced an investigation into formal complaints by residents of Portmore and the Corporate Area about the ill effects of the noxious fumes…
“This matter is of grave importance as there have been at least 12 reported fires at the Riverton City Disposal Site in the last 10 years. The Disposal Site is operated by the NSWMA which is a statutory body and is governed by the National Solid Waste Management Act 2001. Our investigation has revealed that the NSWMA has repeatedly breached its obligations under the Act and in doing so, the claimants constitutional right as guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental rights and Freedoms (Constitutional Amendment) Act 2011 was breached.
“This Commission's investigation has revealed that adequate steps were not taken to extinguish the fire… The Claimants are seeking a declaration that NSWMA is in breach of its statutory duty which amounts to a breach of their constitutional right. At a directions hearing heard on the 29th July 2014 … Justice Thompson-James made several orders as it was the first hearing for the Fixed Date Claim. The trial has been set for three (3) days commencing on December 1, 2015 in open court.”
On March 15, 2014, almost a year before last week’s disaster, a fire broke out at the said Riverton City Dump. The Jamaica Environment Trust issued a statement (thanks for posting Emma Lewis) which noted:
“The National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) has allowed the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) to continue to operate Riverton and other dumps in totally unsatisfactory conditions over decades. We know that NEPA issued an enforcement notice with regard to this latest fire, but the smoke continues to compromise the air for thousands of people.”
Now here is a particularly disturbing observation from JET: “We know that millions of dollars have been spent on this latest fire; money that is not going to be available for proper waste management in future. It is an open secret that the fire is often set by people who have access to the unsecured dump and may well be some of the same people who benefit from the funds which then must be spent to extinguish it.”
Last week, as I noted the upsurge of child fatalities, I wondered at the cynical choices being made by some of our leaders in both political parties as they reign over their garrison communities. How in heavens name, after 12 years of these fires and the identification of poisonous gases emanating from them, have we not put the necessary safeguards in place? Is it because it is easier to open the gates of the dump to those poverty-stricken residents in the area so they can eke out a living, rather than have a structured plan that could still include them, but prevent the possibility of fire-setting? Clearly the technology exists to assist in such a plan.
This latest fire has hit the overseas media, with a ABC News carrying the headline: “Smoke Blankets Jamaica’s Capital as Dump Fire Burns”. Reporter David McFadden noted that in a previous occurence: “The cancer-causing chemical benzene was detected at three times the World Health Organization's air standard. After a 2012 fire, Environment Minister Robert Pickersgill acknowledged the situation affected public health. But the dump continues to catch fire and the island's biggest city continues to be covered in smoke when it does.”
As businesses, including our very Port of Kingston, had to close because of the associated health risks, what message are we sending to the investors we were courting so fervently at the Cariforum Conference in Montego Bay last week?
This recurring Riverton City nightmare is no longer the business of only the Minister of Local Government, the NSWMA or NEPA. It is the urgent business of the Government of Jamaica which boasts some bright stars in its Cabinet. Clearly, there is a disconnect between our various ministries when one agency has to be begging the media to help them find heavy equipment to which other ministries must have access. If there is a jolly picnic happening because of the JLP implosion, let our Government know that neither the media nor civil society groups are napping. There has to be an accounting.