When we comment on the landfill, our primary concern is not the ugliness of an 80-foot-high mountain of waste, nor even the putrid smell that unceasingly wafts over our capital district of George Town.
Neither are we primarily concerned with the marine life and water quality infected by the continuous leaching of contaminants into the North Sound.
No, first and foremost, our priority is the health of humans.
Government consultants identified the unlined landfill as a looming problem more than 20 years ago, back when it was “only” 40 feet tall. The landfill has doubled in height and metastasized in mass in the intervening decades, enough time for an entire generation of Caymanians to grow up without a single breath of unpolluted air, thanks to the fumes emanating from this environmental monstrosity. All the while, our elected politicians have turned their backs, averted their eyes and held their noses.
The science of landfill fires, and the toxins they release, is remarkably advanced. For example, we know that tire fires, such as the one that ignited in Grand Cayman before Christmas, produce pollutants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, styrene, phenols and butadiene – all as nasty as they sound – according to information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In addition to vaporous chemicals, burning tires break down into heavy metals and also oil. (The average passenger car tire produces more than two gallons of oil when burned.)
Besides the obvious threat of chemical contamination, the landfill passively threatens the public health by being a major breeding ground and safe haven for creatures such as rats and mosquitoes, notoriously effective vectors of human disease.
In April 2013, consultants hired by the Dart Group calculated that more than 14,000 people live within two miles of the landfill. That number does not include 623 business centers, 132 civic buildings, 26 tourist-oriented buildings and 1,583 hotel rooms. Further, more than 770 people live within a quarter-mile radius of the landfill, in addition to 15 business centers and eight civic buildings.
Dart’s consultants noted “the potential for acute and chronic toxicity issues that are likely associated with the operations at the existing landfill.”
With so many people potentially at risk, the Cayman Islands government faces an additional economic risk as well. According to Compass attorneys, the country is in danger of being sued by anyone who can show the landfill directly harmed their health.
In future articles and editorials, we will explore troubling health anomalies in Grand Cayman, such as elevated rates of certain kinds of cancers, respiratory ailments and birth defects.
In 2008, government’s waste-to-energy consultants reported, “Existing scales [at the landfill] are non-operational and have only worked intermittently in recent years, so accurate waste intake in recent years is unknown.”
In 2010, the government undertook soil sampling at the site, according to Dart’s consultants. The tests, perhaps unsurprisingly, showed an elevated level of mercury (compared to Florida standards).
Alarmingly, the government’s tests were not adequate to determine whether concentrations of arsenic, cobalt, copper, iron, lead and zinc were within appropriate limits.
In other words, we don’t know what’s in the dump, how much of it is in there, or the hazards it presents to the Caymanian people.
What we do know is that it’s ugly, it stinks, it’s in the wrong place, and that this government needs to do what previous governments have so irresponsibly avoided. They need to put parochial politics aside – and fix it.