The issue is a long-standing toxic eyesore that dominates Grand Cayman’s landscape, presents an odorous nuisance for neighbors and poses a potential health threat to the Cayman Islands public.
The George Town Landfill has been a fixture on the political calendar for decades but became a headline-grabbing topic during the United Democratic Party’s 2009-2012 administration.
Then-Premier McKeeva Bush proposed a solution in which the Dart Group would assume control of the landfill site, remediate it, cover it and turn it into a park. The company planned to build a new waste management facility in east Bodden Town, turning operational control over to the government.
The UDP’s plan was unpopular among many Bodden Town residents, who feared the proposal would result in the creation of a new “Mount Trashmore” in their district.
The landfill played a major role in the 2013 electoral defeat of the UDP, as well as Bodden Town MLA and Minister of Health Mark Scotland (who championed the plan for the new facility). The Progressives swept all four seats in Bodden Town.
However, other factors had hobbled the UDP, most prominently allegations of corruption against party leader Mr. Bush (who would eventually be cleared of all charges by a jury in October 2014). After Mr. Bush was removed as premier in December 2012, his party fell apart, rent by disaffection and defection of former party members, including Minister Scotland, who formed the interim People’s National Alliance government.
Once in power after the May 2013 elections, Premier Alden McLaughlin and his Progressives government made the landfill a top priority, rejecting Dart’s Bodden Town proposal and shelving ideas that were not confined to the existing George Town site.
On Dec. 20, 2013, the landfill caught fire. Funnels of toxic smoke rose above a half-million discarded tires as tropical breezes spread the oily odor. Cayman’s political winds also shifted and government decided the time had come for action.
Minister for Health Osbourne Bodden, who had responsibility for the landfill, was removed from that role after an internal contretemps with his chief officer. Mr. McLaughlin took over and, after some fitful starts and stops, the Integrated Solid Waste Management System – called by its “ISWMS” acronym (pronounced “IZ-wims”) – was born.
ISWMS details a 25-year plan to gain control of Cayman’s solid waste, between 80,000 tons and 100,000 tons per year. In September 2016, consultants KPMG and U.K.-based Amec Foster Wheeler outlined the business case, calling for a public-private partnership to execute the strategy.
Contractors will “design, build, finance, operate and maintain” ISWMS facilities, aiming to divert 95 percent of waste from entering the landfill.
Consultants pegged capital investment at $100 million and operational costs for the 25-year project at $538 million.
The consultants noted that government had not identified how to pay for the project.
According to the report, “Currently identified revenue streams are insufficient to finance the [waste management project] on a sustainable basis …. This affordability gap will need to be addressed either through ongoing contributions from CIG or by identifying additional revenue streams.”
Doing nothing, however, comes with its own price: A “status-quo type system of just landfilling waste on the islands” would cost some $418 million over 25 years, according to consultants.
The name of the contractor that will “fix the dump” is today on the desk of the Central Tenders Committee, scheduled for a decision by the end of the month – and may have been approved already.
The “preferred bidder,” as Mr. McLaughlin’s Ministry of Health and Culture calls the main contractor, will assume broad responsibility for a dozen component projects – waste-to-energy conversion; the Department of Environmental Health’s program to collect, bale and ship recyclable materials overseas; transferring waste from the Sister Islands; composting yard refuse and other organic materials; incinerating what cannot be recovered, burying tons of resultant fly ash and finding uses for bottom ash; and keeping new waste out of the landfill.
A start to the work, however, is still distant. The preferred bidder must be approved by Cabinet, which will ask for further information. Jim Schubert, the ministry’s senior project manager, says another six months may pass “before it’s all nailed down,” and the subsequent environmental impact statement, requiring Department of Environment approval, is likely to take another 12 months.
Defending the deliberate pace, the senior project manager said, “We want a system for the next 25 years.”
“We don’t want to get started, then realize in four years that we made a mistake and have to start all over again,” he added.
ISWMS will not be profitable. It will generate modest revenues – selling to the Caribbean Utilities Company, for example, as much as 8 megawatts of electricity generated by the $64.3 million, 53,000-ton capacity steam-driven waste-to-energy plant, and sales of recyclable materials to overseas aggregators.
Meanwhile, recycling is moving ahead, and the landfill’s tire shredder began operating March 21, scheduled to spend just less than one year turning a half-million radials, discarded since 2000, into two-inch chips. The “tire-derived aggregate” will be used by home-builder Davenport Development and Frank Sound’s Ironshore Development – and possibly the National Roads Authority – in road beds, building foundations, drainage work, erosion control and landfill cover.
In mid-May, Progressives candidate for George Town North Joey Hew told a forum that he supports ISWMS, keeping the dump at its current site.
“One of the key reasons why we would want to keep it in that area is we’ve already established that area as a collection point,” he said. “The consumers for the energy produced in the waste-energy plant are right there in the general vicinity. And that’s important that we can transport the energy and be able to sell the energy created there at the facility. I do support the facility remaining where it is.”
In late January, Premier McLaughlin said the 2013 election had marked a turning point: “We said from the outset of being elected to office that we would do everything in our power to resolve the issue of the landfill and the need for a modern solid waste management system.
“We have taken time to ensure we identified the best possible solution and follow all the regulatory guidelines … and are at the final stages of putting our plans into place.
“The country needs a waste-management system that will protect our environment, our health and our economy for generations to come, and I am confident that our plans will deliver all of these aspects,” he said.
Mr. Bush’s Cayman Democratic Party manifesto does not mention ISWMS, outlining a less-ambitious strategy for solid waste management: “We will implement strategies to achieve a goal of 50 percent diversion [from the landfill] by 2025,” while closing the George Town landfill.
“We believe in the enhancement of personal responsibility through advocacy, education and the creation of opportunities to realize the national vision for waste management,” the manifesto says.