For the past week, considerable swathes of Jamaica have been awash in toxic smoke spewing from a massive fire at Kingston’s Riverton City Dump.
The fumes forced hundreds upon hundreds of residents to seek medical care for respiratory complaints, dozens of businesses to shutter their windows, and many schools to shut their doors — so many, in fact, that the government made the decision to postpone the country’s Grade Six Achievement Test by a week because an estimated 11,675 students (out of 38,470 who were to take the exam) were impacted by smoke from the landfill fire.
According to the Jamaica Observer, the Caribbean Policy Research Institute calculated the economic costs of the landfill fire to be nearly CI$2 million — and that doesn’t include any reputational damage resulting from international news reports.
The Riverton City blaze isn’t just some abstract, hyperbolic example of what could possibly happen in Grand Cayman under somewhat similar circumstances “if not for the grace of God.”
In fact, it is a graphic illustration of what inevitably happens to poorly managed dumps, including Grand Cayman’s, according to the laws of chemical and thermal physics.
In other words, an immense mountain of flammable material does not just happen to catch fire from time to time — combustion is the default outcome of its natural state. It takes a continual, conscientious and coordinated effort to keep it from spontaneously bursting into flames.
As firefighters and dump officials in Jamaica and Grand Cayman well know, that is no easy task, with no certainty of success, in the absence of adequate financial and physical resources. A couple of weeks ago in George Town, fire and landfill crews removed a large concrete slab buried in the dump they think may have been contributing to recurrent blazes, a discovery that highlighted the latent dangers of hidden pockets of incompatible waste sown throughout the dump like so many “landfill landmines.”
In the May 2013 election, the Progressives took control of the Legislative Assembly after pledging to keep a waste management facility from being established in Bodden Town and promising to solve the problems at the existing landfill. So sure were they in the superior viability of their plans, they rejected a $60 million deal with Dart to remediate and close George Town’s Mount Trashmore, forever.
The waste management issue (which, as we have said, is ultimately a health issue) is now in the most appropriate of hands — those belonging to Premier Alden McLaughlin, whose foundational office is MLA representing George Town.
If a solution to the dump problem is to be identified and enacted under the current elected government, it will have to be under Premier McLaughlin’s direct supervision, authority and guidance.
If the periodic blazes that flare up in our own front yard aren’t enough of a reminder that the George Town Landfill requires urgent resolution, perhaps enlightenment can be attained by turning toward Jamaica’s mephitic inferno in our colonial neighborhood — and breathing in a nice big lungful of Cayman’s impending future.