Response to dump fire under review

The light smoke floating across the Esterley Tibbetts Highway in George Town Wednesday morning was not a great cause for concern, according to initial statements by Cayman Islands fire commanders.  

Acting Fire Chief Rosworth McLaughlin said a “small fire” started at the landfill early Wednesday and was “under control” fairly quickly, according to initial reports posted on the website.  

That turned out not to be the case, as the landfill fire grew throughout the day and firefighters were able to dig deeper into the large residential trash pile on the southern end of the landfill.  

The deeper they went, the more flames were discovered and by then a shift in the wind sparked fires on other areas of the trash mound.  

By Thursday, smoke clouds bringing foul odors to a large portion of Grand Cayman’s western and southern coasts were reported everywhere from West Bay to Savannah.  

What may not have looked like a large blaze from the top of the 70-80 foot trash mound had actually started far beneath the surface, possibly by spontaneous combustion although fire crews were not immediately able to determine a cause.  

The fire was eventually extinguished around noon on Saturday. A small crew remained on site Saturday to watch for any flare ups, according to Acting Fire Chief McLaughlin. 

The Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the operations of the Cayman Islands Fire Service and which is run by Premier Alden McLaughlin, was not critical of the emergency response decisions at the scene of the landfill.  

It noted firefighters had worked more than 50 hours non-stop by Friday morning, hampered by a lack of functional equipment needed to get to the seat of the blaze – some 25 feet down from the top of the trash pile.  

However, a government-led review of that response will be conducted, according to Ministry chief officer Eric Bush, who commended the firefighters who “put themselves in harm’s way to serve and protect our country and its people.” 

“It’s obvious we need to make some improvement to responding to dump fires and adequately supplying our officers with properly functioning safety equipment,” Mr. Bush said, noting that a recent review of the local fire service by United Kingdom chief fire and rescue advisor Peter Holland had pointed this out just a few weeks ago.  

“We will learn from this and make the necessary improvements,” Mr. Bush said.  

Equipment failures 

The fire 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 last week that two bulldozers, a trash compactor and two excavators normally available to the dump site were broken down. Mr. Bodden said Premier 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.  

Eventually, four excavators were brought to the site to help fire crews with their task, but questions were left surrounding the lack of proper equipment and why the equipment on site was broken down. Mr. Bodden said earlier this month that an engine from one of the excavators had been sent to Brazil for repairs. 

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. Most of those increasingly dilapidated vehicles were used by the Department of Environmental Health, the Health Services Authority and the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service. 

Firefighter concerns 

The review conducted by Mr. Holland touched on some matters related to the fire service’s ability to respond effectively to situations like last week’s landfill fire.  

“There is no question there is low morale amongst firefighters,” Mr. Holland said after spending several hours spending with local fire crews about problems in the service. One of the major issues identified was the lack of updated protective equipment for fire crews, he said, describing this as “a big factor as far as the firefighters are concerned.”  

Meanwhile, the government spent more than $6 million on new fire trucks following Hurricane Ivan in 2004 to replace what it had lost. The trucks make relatively few calls for service each year.  

The government has budgeted to hire 26 new firefighters in the 2013/14 fiscal year. Mr. Holland also advised that options could be explored to beef up the service even further.  

In the U.S., fire service volunteers are often used to supplement or even replace professional firefighters in smaller communities. In the U.K., Mr. Holland said, “retained duty” firefighters are used on an as-needed basis for the same functions.  

The difference is that retained duty firefighters are professionally trained and paid, but they are called in [and paid] only when emergencies or staffing levels dictate. “They’re trained to exactly the same standard as the full-time firefighters,” Mr. Holland said.  

On Wednesday, all available fire service personnel had to be brought in on standby to sustain a prolonged effort at the landfill site.  

Dump fix 

Firefighters and Department of Environmental Health workers only got called in to clean up the mess that already existed, according to Health Minister Bodden.  

He said the fire “reinforces the decision” to form a multi-agency steering committee to develop a proper waste management system for the Cayman Islands. “These fires only serve to underscore the fact that it is of critical importance to the country that we find a sustainable solution to waste management,” he said. 

The 16-person committee, consisting mainly of civil servants, held its first meeting on Jan. 22. It was created to provide government with technical advice about the landfill, create a budget and procurement strategy for the project and monitor the implementation as it goes along.  

“We have learned many lessons through this experience and now it’s time to move on and look ahead,” Mr. Bodden said. 


Firefighters were working around the clock to control a landfill blaze last week. – Photo: Chris Court


  1. As bad as these two fires were for Cayman. It would have been worse if they had these fires from East of where it is now. So once and for all it has to be where it is, George town or further west is where it needs to stay or go. Why can’t we dump it in the trench? There is a fire burning 24/7 down more then 5 miles deep and approx. 13 miles off shore. That fire will melt everything back to its original elements.

    Plasma gasification is another route:
    OK, so, the advantages, from what I can tell:

    Plasma arc disposal systems:

    1) Can have a very high capacity. For most cities, they can actually dispose of more garbage than a city can produce. This enables the disposal unit to either accept garbage from other sources, such as outlying towns and communities as well, or actively reduce the existing landfills while eliminating all new waste. I understand that if the capacity is large enough, it can do both.

    2) Generate cheap, plentiful power.

    3) Produce useful materials, thus could be considered a rather extreme form of recycling.

    The major drawbacks addressed in the Wiki article seem to be that:

    1) There are significant transportation and infrastructure considerations to consider.

    2) It’s still a mostly unproven technology on very large scales.

    3) The liner of the plasma chamber is a weak point, since most units use an expensive metal liner that usually has a life of about a year. I do note, however, that a workaround involving lower temperatures and a brick plasma chamber has been developed.

    4) I have also heard that the slag generated is hazardous, and would have to be disposed of, though I note that it would involve very small volumes of slag, and could be considered a step up from enormous, multi-acre landfills.

    5) I would guess there are some materials which can’t be processed this way, such as radioactive materials.

    So, discussion? How much promise does this technology hold? Will it ever be implemented on a large scale? What promise does it have of making up shortfalls in local energy grids? I note that, as opposed to some varieties of alternative energy, plasma gasification is localized by its very essence. It would be a decentralized source of energy, and if it stays that way, the electrical infrastructure cost might be minimal.

  2. I have a questionable concern, more than a comment. Is it possible that these intense fires may eventually cause damage to the underneath bed-rock frame work in the area. Many of us are aware that the Cayman islands bed-rock structure is mostly cliff-rock and marl-rock. I also know that long time ago old folks would dig and burn out holes to make water wells and septic holes. It used to amaze me how by just the constant burning and the bed rock would crack up underneath from the fire causing large caveat to get bigger. Just wondering if this continued fire burning will eventually in the long run cause some major damage to the structure of the bed-rock earth on our island. Just a thought.

  3. David, this had been posted before but I am happy to repeat it.

    We have a garbage dump staffed by people who cannot even keep basic mechanical equipment in proper working order so how do you expect them to maintain a plasma arc processing unit?

    This is just another of those options that may look good (and I am not convinced it does) on paper but fails the doability test.

    I have no idea what the best solution is but one thing I do know is that it has to be simple to the point of being idiot proof if it has any hope of working.

  4. David, No matter where the dump is it needs to be managed correctly to avoid these types of thing. Any place where garbage is dumps in a big pile year after year is just a ticking time bomb. As far as dumping garbage in the Trench, that is the worst thing I can think of the Ocean should be no one’s dumping ground, Man is already destroying the environment on land so don’t make the ocean our new dumping ground. Your other ideas such as plasma gasification are great, we’ve heard them all before even the Waste to Energy thing where the garbage will be burned to create free electricity for all to enjoy. But give me break if Cayman can’t even afford to keep the vehicles at the dump running, how in the world are we going to afford this type of new technology. I don’t get why is it that people just can’t get it through their heads the there’s no money in Government coffers to pay for these high end waste management solutions that everyone keeps recommending. What this committee will come up with after two years are the same thing we already know and have already heard about but the fact will remain the we can’t afford it.

    Result : The pile of trash keep growing and politicians campaign on promises to fix the dump within 100 Days of being elected.

  5. One way or the other whether a new Waste Management Facility is built in Bodden Town or in George Town the pile of Garbage we currently have called Mt Trashmore will need to be dealt with. And contrary to the lies and rumors that were spread about the Dart Offer it was not to move that pile of trash and dump it in Bodden Town. So what do we do with Mt Trashmore? There have been tons of ideas and options going around already without the need for a committee.

    Some of the ideas suggest mining the landfill and burning the rubbish to create free electricity is the way to go. However the cost of setting up an operation like this would far overshadow the amount of Electricity that could be produced. The estimated cost of this from the WheelaBrator RFP was an over 100 Million Dollar initial investment, 20 Million Dollars a year to run and it was estimated that it would take 20 year to process all the garbage currently dumped in Mt Trashmore. This adds up to a half billion dollar investment into the GT dump over the next 20 Years. The result would be that the garbage or at least most of it would be gone. Sounds great to me but who is going to pay for it, Government is looking for someone to come in and finance this venture completely with an expectation of recovering their investment and earning a profit over a 20 Year period. One drawback to this is that the leaching would not stop until the pile is gone..

    Another option is capping the landfill which can stop the leaching into the ground as well the North Sound as soon as it capped. The basics of it is that is stops rain water infiltration into the contaminated trash which is what actually causes the leaching. There are also other aspect to properly capping a Landfill such as drainage levy’s and vents that need to be incorporated for it to properly work. Capped landfills have been converted into many thing such as Nature preserves, Publics Parks, Solar Power Arrays and even Golf Courses

    Here’s a few Articles than explain it, this is common practice done all over the world with great success rates.

    Here’s some information about Bell Mills Park in Virginia which was built over a former Landfill. And also The Thurrock Thameside Nature Park at Mucking, which lies on top of 50 years of waste from six London boroughs. It has been restored to grasslands, woodland, ponds and reedbeds.

    The cost estimate for Capping the dump was around 30 Million dollars plus ongoing maintenance. This is to me the only realistic options for the GT dump which can be started right away and end up being something that will actually enhance the GT Area. Mining the GT dump and removing everything there would be the best option but it would cost 10’s of Millions of dollars to do and take decades to complete, and don’t think for a second that someone is going to come here and do it for free because the trash can be converted to gold.

    Capping the dump would be a lot better than doing nothing and letting it sit there for another 2, 10 or 20 Years. Once this is done, we can start a rigid recycling program to reduce the amount of trash put into our Landfill and work on obtaining new technology to convert some of it into electricity. Just the recycling part can cut the amount of garbage down by 80 percent.

    As far as new lined pit for future rubbish, This will be needed whether it’s at a new location in Bodden Town or the current location in George Town. The cost of construction of a properly lined 30 Acre by 30 Foot pit from what I’ve found is in the Area of 3-7 Million just for the Liner and this doesn’t include the cost of excavation and installation.

    A properly managed Waste management solution poses no threat to the surrounding Environment. Here are a few articles that will help explain how it should be done. The bottom line is that where ever it ends up we have to make sure we get it right this time. And the sad fact is that we have to work with what we have which isn’t much thanks to decades of wasteful spending on other things while ignoring the growing menace in GT.

  6. David Miller there are a couple glaring problems with your argument. The first being a new, properly designed dump wouldn’t be subject to spontaneous combustion fires that burn for days. It’s taken this dump 40 years to get to this point, so your argument of what if this happened in Bodden Town doesn’t stand.

    And your plasma arc gasification is a pipe dream for multiple reasons. Not least of which is the CI Gov’t can’t afford to build such a thing. Also such solutions require a robust recycling system in place to remove products which are either inefficient or unable to gasify. Seeing as the recycling system in Cayman is woefully underdeveloped it doesn’t make sense to start gasifying our trash until we can recycle the valuable pieces. Add in the problems you yourself mentioned and why would we invest 100 million into this technology? Not to mention it might get wiped away in a hurricane any given year.

  7. Michael and Christopher I have been searching the internet for landfills . Capping with different materials and building a proper Waste management facility . There seems to be still no cures for what we have here because of water tables. Digging thirty feet in limestone will need explosives, A couple of years of digging to just get to thirty feet. Plus there are problems with the different caps to place on top. I believe it will be just as expensive and all we are doing is creating more problems. This websites states the problems that they have found in researching the landfills you are suggesting.
    Its scary to say the least because of groundwater infiltration. I already don’t drink the water from the plant. I buy water.
    Clay liners:
    Natural clay is often fractured and cracked. A mechanism called diffusion will move organic chemicals like benzene through a three-foot thick clay landfill liner in approximately five years. Some chemicals can degrade clay.
    Plastic liners:
    The very best landfill liners today are made of a tough plastic film called high density polyethylene (HDPE).* A number of household chemicals will degrade HDPE, permeating it (passing though it), making it lose its strength, softening it, or making it become brittle and crack. Not only will household chemicals, such as moth balls, degrade HDPE, but much more benign things can cause it to develop stress cracks, such as, margarine, vinegar, ethyl alcohol (booze), shoe polish, peppermint oil, to name a few.
    They include the whole scenario of all that is in use today. I believe we need to create a waste management facility that will be used more then a short time.
    My problem is it can’t go east of where it is. But what part of west will suffice? Maybe a larger country can use our waste ?? Since its too expensive to use waste to energy?
    I found a site where other islands are having the exact problems as us and they are shipping it out of the island . I believe this is our only solution as we are getting ready for more development.

  8. I could fix your dump problem very easily because it is what I do and have been doing for years.
    It seems to me that because I offer low tech/cost solutions Its just not what people want to hear but the reality is my way will work properly.

  9. Tim, can you enlighten us on your easy fix? Like give us an example of how you would easily remediate the mountain of Trash in George Town.
    David, the 30 foot pit was just an example. I don’t believe a pit that deep would actually be needed. But that is for future waste. Anyway the point I was trying to make is that no matter what’s decided about how to handle future waste, something still needs to be done with Mt Trashmore. Shipping it off Island would probably be the best option but can you imagine how much that would cost and how long it would take. Is that actually a realistic option? It might work for future waste which has been properly processed with the recyclable and compostable items removed, but I find it hard to believe that the trash heap currently in GT will be loaded up on barges and shipped away unless we have a lot of money to pay someone to take it as well as the costs of loading shipping it. So we will be stuck with it for a very long time. This leaves us with the reality that we have to mitigate the negative impact of it as much as we can and the worse thing we could do is just let it sit there year after year festering in the sun and getting rained on. Capping it will minimize the damage it’s causing, and for heaven’s sake stop dumping more trash on it, but are you saying that you think capping it would cost just as much as shipping it all off island.
    Also I am seeing a few articles that says shipping household trash overseas violates international law, so this may not even be an option. There are also a lot of stories about rich countries sending their trash to poorer countries who take it but at a great cost to their own health.
    Check this story out.

  10. Don’t know about Tims ideas, but for me the first step is to modify the way waste is collected on Island.

    I come from a small town in the UK with about 3 times the population of Cayman and it has been zero landfill for almost 4 decades.

    The secret is that there is value to most of the sub-components of ‘garbage’ UNTIL you mix it all together.

    We’ve seen that steel can be profitably shipped off island for re-cycling. Aluminium cans are also very valuable.

    Back home we had a heavy duty light blue sack left every week by the ‘bin-men’ which both aluminum and steel cans were trashed making it a simple matter to profitably re-cycle them at the ‘Dump’. Depending on where you were they either had a ‘split’ truck with the front 25 percent reserved for that or a dedicated one just for those bags.

    Later, glass and then, paper and card, were separated.

    Plastics were the last to be sorted.

    The remaining fraction is pretty much all organic and can be sterilized by a fermentation process and produces a high grade fertilizer.

    No Warp Reactors or Flux capacitors required.

    The Nasty bit is what’s called e-waste; used batteries dead cell phones tv’s and computers as well as fluorescent lights – contains a lot of heavy metals and toxins, yes those cost money to dispose of.

    The interesting thing is that in real terms the nett cost to the citizens is much lower today than when they operated the landfills or incinerators.

  11. Andy hit it right on the nose, there is no reason not to start at least having people separate their garbage. For crying out loud, they aren’t even charged for pickups nowadays. At least they can start new piles of trash in the dump that are separated and can be processed later. Pickup garbage on one day and recyclables on another. What the heck is so hard about that? And why wait 2 years to start it, they should immediately stop piling things on top of Mount Trashmore. If they say there’s no room to put the separated trash, then how in the heck is there room for a WTE facility at the GT dump. There are metal recyclers on island and Dart has a glass crusher and has already offered to take recycled glass products, why not put these resources to use right away. Paper can even be sold to recyclers.

Comments are closed.