No air-pollution controls at landfill incinerators

DEH does not track emissions

The Cayman Brac landfill incinerator, pictured above, does not have a scrubber or other air-pollution controls. Neither does the incinerator at the George Town landfill. - Photo: Ken Silva

The George Town and Cayman Brac landfill incinerators have burned nearly 2 million pounds of trash since August 2016, all without the use of scrubbers – devices to remove toxins from the incinerators’ exhaust.

It is not clear how much hazardous emissions are being released into the atmosphere due to there being no air-pollution control devices at the landfill incinerators. A 2016 study by U.K. environmental consultant Amec Foster Wheeler recommended that government start assessing emissions from the incinerators and their likely impact, but that initiative has not yet started.

“Accordingly, there is no data [on incinerator emissions],” the Department of Environmental Health told the Cayman Compass earlier this week.

Despite the lack of data, the unfiltered burning of trash is a public-health concern, according to Richard Peltier, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“Burning municipal waste, especially in the absence of pollution filters, is often viewed as risky for a community because these emissions can contain many different toxins, such as heavy metals, pesticides, or plastics,” said Mr. Peltier, who is an atmospheric chemist and researches human exposure to air pollutants. “This can lead to sickness and even death in a community because these pollutants can travel great distances from an incinerator.

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“Adults take around 20,000 breaths per day, and it’s important to make sure each of those breaths isn’t contaminated with pollutants that make us sick.”

“Once [the gases and particulates] are emitted from a source, they can travel great distances in whatever direction the wind might be blowing,” he added. “If you are downwind, you are very likely to be exposed to them, and there aren’t many good ways to mitigate this exposure in your home or workplace.”

Mr. Peltier also said that incinerating waste is risky even if the incinerator burns a relatively low volume of waste.

This is the case in Cayman, which incinerates less than half a percent of the more than 100,000 tons of garbage dropped at the dump annually, landfilling the other waste.

This is far less than other territories, such as the British Virgin Islands, which burns more than 40,000 tons of trash per year despite having about half the population of Cayman.

The George Town landfill incinerator has burned about 490 tons of waste per year from August 2016 to August 2018, while the Cayman Brac incinerator has burned about 4 tons of waste annually during that same time.

Waste that gets burned here includes infectious medical waste, confidential documents, and drugs seized by police, according to the Amec Foster Wheeler study. All types of waste on Little Cayman are incinerated, and are “commonly set alight without any formal control,” the 2016 study added.

The amount of waste incinerated here is partly limited by the frequent disrepair of both incinerators. Multiple breakdowns of the nearly 20-year old Brac incinerator has led to untreated medical waste being dumped into a pit there – a practice that violates public health regulations.

The George Town landfill incinerator also broke down a few times between June and August this summer, according to records obtained by the Compass. But unlike on the Brac, medical waste was stored on roll-off containers instead of being dumped untreated, the Department of Environmental Health stated.

The 2016 Amec Foster Wheeler study stated that cracks and chips in the refractory lining of the primary combustion chambers will “probably result in failure of the unit within the next two or three years.”

Cayman is not the only Caribbean territory that incinerates waste without air-pollution control devices.

The incinerator in the BVI also is without a scrubber, which has led to widespread concerns from the community there, as well as complaints being filed with the Environmental Protection Agency in the neighboring United States Virgin Islands.

The territory’s local newspaper, The BVI Beacon, has reported on residents near the incinerator complaining about coughing regularly and having difficulty breathing from the unfiltered emissions.

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