Trash fire reveals ‘equipment crisis’
For the second time in less than two months, a section of the George Town landfill caught fire Wednesday, sending clouds of gray and white smoke over parts of George Town and causing some nearby residents to evacuate their homes.
The deep-seated fire in a large residential trash pile at the landfill’s southern end was more difficult to battle since five pieces of heavy equipment normally used to fight fires or mitigate the occurrence of fires were out of order.
Health Minister Osbourne Bodden, who has oversight responsibility for the George Town landfill, said two bulldozers, a trash compactor and two excavators normally available to the dump site were broken down. Mr. Bodden said Premier Alden McLaughlin contacted him Wednesday to ask what it might cost to replace those vehicles. Mr. Bodden said it would be somewhere in the range of $1 million to $1.5 million.
Why the equipment was broken down was not clear. Mr. Bodden said earlier this month that an engine from one of the excavators had been sent to Brazil for repairs, but he wasn’t certain why.
Wednesday’s fire was not as large as the Dec. 20 dump blaze that burned a pile of tires and metal products, sending columns of black smoke over downtown George Town and Grand Cayman’s Seven Mile Beach. However, the smoke from Wednesday’s fire was easily seen for hours by residents in the Industrial Park area, as well as by motorists on the Esterley Tibbetts Highway.
Mr. Bodden said he was aware of a few residents who evacuated their homes in the immediate area of the landfill due to the smoke. At press time, there was no word on anyone having been hospitalized due to smoke inhalation or other health issues related to the blaze.
It was not clear when the fire appeared at the top of the trash pile early Wednesday morning, but Acting Chief Fire Officer Rosworth McLaughlin said the blaze likely had been burning for some time underneath the mound and out of view.
Mr. McLaughlin said this made getting to the source of the flames more difficult because firefighters had to tunnel into the trash to get water onto the burning sections. By 2 p.m. Wednesday, the fire chief said his crews were having some effect and had contained the blaze.
Mr. Bodden said an excavator had been brought in to assist fire crews. However, he said another difficulty arose when loose trash on the sides of the large pile began catching fire as well.
“We have a number of fires going on right now,” said Mr. Bodden, who was at the landfill Wednesday afternoon. “The fire is a difficult one because it’s up on the [trash] mound, but it came from underground and broke the surface.”
All off-duty firefighters were placed on standby Wednesday to ensure there was enough staff available to handle a grueling, sustained effort in the midday sun.
Mr. Bodden said meetings were held Wednesday with Works Minister Kurt Tibbetts over the “equipment crisis” in the Department of Environmental Health, which manages the landfill. Mr. Tibbetts oversees the government’s Department of Vehicle and Equipment Services, the agency that procures vehicles for government departments.
Issues with poor vehicle maintenance and lack of proper replacement procedures have been well known for months, both in the Department of Environmental Health and the wider Cayman Islands government.
In June, the government’s Internal Audit Unit reported that a “growing fleet” of rundown vehicles had caused a number of Cayman Islands government agencies to choose not to use the government department created to maintain and purchase new vehicles.
The audit identified “a growing fleet of dilapidated vehicles, most of which are attributed to the Department of Environmental Health, the Health Services Authority and the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service.”
At the scene of the huge landfill blaze on Dec. 20, Deputy Chief Fire Officer Craig McCoy told the Caymanian Compass that initial firefighting efforts were hampered when two excavators at the landfill had a problem and could not be used to dig up the burning piles of rubbish.
“Apparently, the excavators on site broke down,” Mr. McCoy said.
The excavation machines placed at the landfill have been out of order “for a while,” according to Minister Bodden, who said some equipment from the National Roads Authority had to be brought in to assist in the excavation during the Dec. 20 landfill fire.
Minister Bodden said at the time that the landfill excavators had not been replaced due to “lack of budget.”