This story was originally published after the landfill fire in March 2020. It has been updated to include yesterday’s blaze.
The eruption of the second major landfill fire in a year may have felt like déjà vu for many in the Cayman Islands.
Sizeable landfill fires have become a periodic fixture of life on Grand Cayman. The unlined George Town dump site has been prone to fire outbreaks since the mid-1980s but, in recent years, Caymanians have witnessed dramatic blazes.
While not all dump fires have come with plumes of black smoke, school closures and traffic jams – although several have – they accompany a familiar cycle of outrage, renewed political commitment and frustrated efforts to move forward.
What started as an informal dump site in the 1960s has now become a protagonist in day-to-day life in Cayman.
The Compass compiled a short history of waste management in Grand Cayman to explain how the island got to this point.
Caymanians depend on burning in large part to dispose of their waste. At this time, however, rubbish accumulation is much less than it is now.
“That solution [burning] must be prefaced by the explanation that there wasn’t much garbage to begin with, simply because everything got used and re-used until it was used up. Any leftover food was used to feed the chickens,” wrote Cayman Compass journalist Carol Winker.
Government first begins incineration. A Cayman Islands Colonial Report from the time states, “An incinerator has been built on the grounds of the Government Hospital, while a regular garbage disposal service has been instituted in George Town.”
Increased prosperity and the beginnings of the tourist industry begin to increase waste on island.
The Colonial Report for 1966-70 states, “The growth of George Town and the residential areas surrounding it has progressively increased the burden of the refuse disposal service.”
Two new trucks are added to the island’s disposal service. The garbage collected by government is dumped on swamp land.
One swamp area, purchased by George Seymour in the hopes of raising cattle, becomes a popular dumping site and eventually evolves into the current George Town landfill.
Chief Medical Officer Dr. H. M. McGladdery suggests contacting Seymour and leasing the land for eight years for garbage disposal. By the end of the year, Seymour and government come to agreement to use a 20.15-acre area.
The Public Health Law empowers government to make garbage-disposal regulations. Garbage burning is prohibited in areas that have collection service.
Governor Thomas Russell indicates in his Throne Speech that an additional dump site will be acquired in Grand Cayman.
Government allocates $390,000 to purchase 30 acres of land as a garbage dump and sewage-treatment site. The cost comes under fire.
Vassel Johnson states, “This piece of land which was purchased for $390,000 is the worst kind of swamp land which one will find in that area.”
Minister Ezzard Miller tells the Legislative Assembly, “Solid waste disposal is a problem that is fast getting out of hand. …
“It appears that the best way forward at this time is going to be some kind of clean-burn incineration method for which the waste heat can be used to either generate electricity or supply water.”
Government budgets $900,000 for consultancy work on solid-waste management.
In November, Miller warns of “the threat of a methane bomb going off on the outskirts of George Town at any time”.
He estimates that 300 tons of solid waste are sent to the landfill each week, adding, “a new garbage dump at an alternative site might shortly become necessary and advisable”.
Consultations with the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization point to finding an alternative site may be difficult due to soil type and environmental conditions in potential locations.
Government’s budget includes funds for a comprehensive study on solid-waste collection and disposal to be completed by end of the year.
The 1984 purchase of swampland again comes under fire. MLA Benson Ebanks states, “The deal on the land for the garbage dump was also the subject of comment by the Auditor General in that same report. In that case, the Government Lands Officer placed a value of $75,000 on the land. Government paid $390,000 for the property.”
A medical-waste incinerator begins operation at the landfill and the National Trust for the Cayman Islands launches a pilot programme for recycling aluminium cans. Debate continues on finding an additional dump site.
Linford Pierson tells the Legislative Assembly, “I have so far discussed the matter of a dump site with various members from all of the districts in Grand Cayman, and not one member would wish to have, or even entertain, the idea of a dump being placed in their district.”
An additional 22 acres are purchased by government to extend the landfill site. Plans at the time include a wildlife buffer zone around the dump, including a bird sanctuary and lakes.
“The buffer area … will essentially be expanded to a total of 26 acres. I should also emphasise that this buffer zone is complemented by the 200 acres of undisturbed mangrove swamp that isolates that parcel from the surrounding residential development,” Miller states.
To prevent groundwater contamination, a piping system is proposed, and eight permanent monitoring wells are suggested to facilitate sampling.
Debate around the landfill intensifies leading up to the 1992 elections.
Government consultants advise, “There is no liner system under the solid waste in the existing landfill, and contamination from the solid waste can migrate from the landfill through the groundwater to contaminate the environment. There is also no surface water management system to control run-off from the landfill.
“Contamination is leaving the site through the groundwater and surface water, entering the canal system, and eventually reaching the North Sound.”
Kurt Tibbetts tells the LA that the Department of Environmental Health aims by March 1995 to reduce landfill odour with a budget of $100,000.
DEH works on developing a recycling programme for cardboard and paper. “This, together with the mulching of yard waste, will divert 32% of the mainstream waste from the landfill,” states House Speaker Sybil McLaughlin.
Bodden Town MLA Heather Bodden warns, “At the current rate of growth, it is projected that the landfill area for garbage disposal will be full to capacity in six years.”
An environmental health review and landfill survey is completed. DEH suggests improvements to waste collection and billing. The department begins exploring improvements to process medical waste, pesticides and recyclables.
MLA John McLean warns of the environmental impacts of an unlined, non-engineered dump site.
“The government at this time is not controlling seepage of pollutants from the George Town Landfill. Waste of all types, including hazardous wastes, have been discharged into the George Town Landfill,” he says.
A private member’s motion in the LA requests an environmental study on the long-term impacts of aerial spraying and landfill leakage.
MLA Roy Bodden says he is concerned about the potential health effects, such as increased cancer rates.
“All these years, we have been dumping these containers at the landfill, which is not sealed, where they have been allowed to deteriorate and where the remnants of these containers have been allowed to leach into the soil. To date, we have not conducted a scientific study …”
Annual per capita waste is estimated around 1.4 tons per person or a total of 57,500 tons a year. Government estimates the landfill has capacity for another two years and closure of the George Town site is suggested.
Tibbetts tells the LA, “To site a landfill will not be an easy task, but it is critical. George Town has hosted the landfill for decades. It is time, I believe, for another district to take its turn.”
Governor Peter John Smith says the DEH has started a bidding process for new waste-disposal technology to replace the current landfill. Rumours begin to circulate about the dump being moved east. MLA Arden McLean opposes hosting the site in East End.
Hurricane Ivan puts landfill debate on the back burner, as the island works to recover from the disaster.
Odour complaints are noted around Seven Mile Beach and George Town.
Cayman Shores Development Ltd., a subsidiary of Dart, offers to purchase the George Town landfill and move the site to Bodden Town. “The Cayman Islands Government did not respond to the letter,” Dart states.
At this time, the landfill elevation is estimated at 40.7 feet.
Leader of Government Business Tibbetts indicates that a waste-to-energy proposal is under way.
“Grand Cayman could see the generation of electricity from trash by 2010,” he states.
Around this time, a Strategic Waste Management Committee is formed. Arden McLean says the committee will research and review waste-management strategies aimed at reducing waste and exploring waste-to-energy.
Alden McLaughlin touts waste-to-energy as a greener energy source to reduce the island’s carbon emissions and cut down on landfill waste. He says once the waste-to-energy plan is implemented, “the George Town Landfill will be reduced to a small, five-acre, engineered sanitary landfill, but this will take 15 to 20 years to get to that point”.
The United Democratic Party enters power and begins searching for a new home for the landfill, eventually deciding on a site in Bodden Town.
Leader of Government Business McKeeva Bush says, “a decision would be taken on proposals to address the important issue of the Grand Cayman landfill, with special attention to waste-to-energy possibilities”.
The landfill becomes part of a multi-project deal with Dart called ForCayman Investment Alliance. The project would have closed, capped and remediated the George Town dump, and established a modern solid-waste management facility in eastern Bodden Town.
Bodden Towners form a coalition to oppose the plan and what they fear would become ‘Mount Trashmore East’.
The UDP suffers electoral defeat, including the loss of all four seats in Bodden Town. McLaughlin and the Progressives take power and make the landfill a priority. They reject Dart’s Bodden Town proposal. The George Town landfill elevation is now estimated at 80 feet.
In December, a major landfill fire starts in the scrap-metal pile and spreads to the tyre pile, where there are an estimated half a million tyres.
The Compass reports that dump fires release a wide range of pollutants and chemicals, with short- and long-term health effects.
“Most immediately, lesions of the skin called chloracne can occur, while peripheral neuropathy and liver enzyme induction are also possible, although frequently reversible,” the Compass reports.
“Other possible disorders include cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and boosted rates of diabetes and gastrointestinal cancer …”
In April, Premier McLaughlin and a government delegation travel to Florida to tour waste-to-energy facilities, landfills and a recycling processing centre to study waste-management systems.
This same month, UK consultants Amec Foster Wheeler collect landfill data by surveying and monitoring the site. When the report is released in 2015, it highlights fires, combustible and poisonous gases, and offensive odours as risks associated with the site. The tyre stockpile is identified as a particular fire hazard. For site workers and visitors, there are moderate risks posed by arsenic in soils, hydrogen sulphide, methane and other landfill trace gas components.
The report recommends daily capping, monitoring of groundwater and annual sampling of North Sound for contamination.
In July, Minister of Health Osbourne Bodden writes the Compass, “Early next year we will see the RFPs for the waste management contractor, and by the summer of 2015 we should see the start of plant construction at the landfill, with finalization by the end of 2016 and the start of operations in 2017!”
A draft consultancy report by Amec Foster Wheeler recommends a $538 million, 25-year public-private partnership to reduce, reuse and recycle.
Plans to mine waste and convert it to energy are rejected because of “long-term nuisance conditions from mining, such as odors,” which “outweigh the benefit of gaining back the small area of landfill space.”
Tyre shredding begins in March through Island Recycling and partner company Guernsey Recycling Group with the aim of recycling half a million tyres for construction use. McLaughlin joins the inauguration of the shredder at the landfill.
“We have been working tirelessly to implement a strategy that will see not only the issue of used tyres resolved, but also the entire waste management system of the Cayman Islands redesigned,” the premier says.
“We began working to improve the landfill since the start of term, implementing proper management and ensuring not just fire prevention, but safety for the public and those who work here.”
In October, Dart-led consortium DECCO is selected by government as the preferred bidder to implement the proposed Integrated Solid Waste Management System. The 25-year deal includes plans to construct a waste-to-energy plant, recycling and composting centres, and a much smaller, lined landfill site.
In July, government announces 670,000 tyres have been shredded at the landfill. The project is considered complete and the shredding machine is sent back to the US.
Government announces in October that DECCO will begin capping the main mound of the George Town landfill in early 2020.
Major landfill fires in January and March force school and business closures, and evacuations. The fires reignite debate and enrage the public. McLaughlin makes a public apology on 9 March.
“I want to say how sorry I am, and the entire government is, about yet another one of these massive landfill fires,” he tells the media.
“We have been working; we’re coming up on seven years now since we initiated this round of discussions and negotiations to get a permanent fix, at least for the next 25 to 30 years for Cayman’s solid-waste issues. It is not a simple fix, and there’s not one particular solution that will deal with it.”
Just over a year after it took fire crews a week to bring a landfill fire under control, a blaze ignited at the scrap metal area of the George Town landfill on 25 March.
Thick black smoke began emitting from the scene, next to the Esterley Tibbetts Highway, at 10am as fire crews and Department of Environmental Health staff responded. Firefighters remained at the scene the following day, after they brought the fire under control.