EDITORIAL – George Town landfill: Time to clear the air

Previous analyses have concluded that the George Town landfill, while offensive to eyes and noses, does not contain high levels of extremely toxic substances that can easily spread to the neighboring environment. That is, of course, until the dump catches on fire.

Typically, we associate fires at the landfill with spectacular conflagrations such as the ones that erupted in December 2013 and February 2014 (two of the 121 landfill fires recorded between 2011 and 2014). Following public furor, government took actions that have all but extinguished the recurring problem of spontaneous combustions at the landfill.

Residents and visitors still cannot breathe easy, however, as we reported on the front page of Thursday’s Cayman Compass. Over the past two years, nearly 2 million pounds of trash have been intentionally incinerated at the George Town and Cayman Brac landfills, without the use of “scrubbers” – devices that remove toxins from the incinerators’ exhaust.

Questions for the Department of Environmental Health: What toxins have the Department of Environmental Health been introducing into Cayman’s air? What quantity of those toxins has Cayman’s public been exposed to? What is the potential impact of those toxins on the public health?

Answer from the department: “There is no data.”

The reason “there is no data” is that the government failed to implement a recommendation made in 2016 by U.K. environmental consultant Amec Foster Wheeler (contracted by government) to assess emissions from the incinerators and their likely impact.

Thanks to government’s inaction, we do not know what’s in the air we are breathing, or how bad it might be for our health. According to an expert in the field, the possibilities aren’t reassuring.

Richard Peltier is an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and an atmospheric chemist who researches human exposure to air pollutants. He told a Compass reporter, “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.

“This can lead to sickness and even death in a community because these pollutants can travel great distances from an incinerator.”

Professor Peltier continued, “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.”

The lack of air-pollution controls is the latest failure on record for the George Town landfill and the department that is responsible for it. At the landfill and inside the Department of Environmental Health, the rule, it seems, is that the public does not know what’s going on – and when it finds out, it is extremely troubling. Just this Wednesday, we published an editorial on the department, highlighting auditors’ flagging of $2 million in overspending on overtime pay, the months-long disappearance and eventual retirement of DEH Director Roydell Carter, and the incongruous public posturing by top officials throughout.

Almost exactly a year ago, the outlook on the landfill appeared to be more “light at the end of the tunnel” than “additional smoke on the horizon,” as government announced that a Dart Enterprises-led consortium had been tapped to assume responsibility for the country’s waste management for the next quarter century, starting with closing Cayman’s existing dumps and building a modern facility.

During the past 12 months, we have learned very little on the discussions between Dart and the government, other than that negotiations are purportedly taking place, and that initial timelines (construction likely to begin summer 2018) apparently have fallen by the wayside.

More questions for government: What is the status of negotiations? What is the revised timeline for the transition? And when the new facility comes online – with up to 95 percent of Cayman’s trash (more than 100,000 tons per year) being fed into the highly touted waste-to-energy plant, what safeguards will be put in place to protect the health of the public and the environment?

When we are talking about any major capital project by government, and especially one with the history and importance of the George Town landfill, it is imperative that officials adhere to a philosophy of maximum transparency – in terms of the process, and of the air.

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  1. Just about 30 years ago I worked on a waste incinerator story in the UK. What happened there was the burn temperatures in the unit hadn’t properly monitored so the waste was only being partially destroyed. The emissions from that, which were spread over a major conservation area, included dioxins that were a by-product of burning many commonly used plastics. If you’re not familiar with dioxins Google ‘Agent Orange’. For DEH not to be monitoring this is criminal.

    Incidentally, this is an area Amec Foster Wheeler are painfully aware of because as the technology developed they’ve had a few run ins with the UK authorities in the past. Ignoring their recommendations raises more than a few questions about the competence (can I say integrity?) of the people at DEH responsible for this.

    Bottom line – you cannot just dump mixed waste in a big burner to get rid of it without a whole raft of tough safeguards in place and if you ignore that you’re simply building a toxic time-bomb for the people of these islands.