Gross Negligence all round
Entirely predictably, the main garbage dump for the city of Kingston - Riverton - is burning again.
This time, half the 120-acre site is on fire and the effects are being felt across Jamaica's capital city. Hospitals and health centres are rammed, some running out of necessary drugs, schools and businesses had to close on Friday, March 13, as did the port of Kingston.
Mainstream and social media carry shocking images of children with wet rags over their faces and an apocalyptic blaze. At the time of writing, there are no estimates as to how long it will take to extinguish the fire.
As it happens, I am in Seattle in the US. Outside, I can see the three waste bins of my host household in different sizes and colours - one for garden and food waste (the biggest), one for recycling (next biggest) and the smallest is for trash. Recycling waste is collected free by Seattle Public Utilities, up to one full bin per collection, but yard waste and trash is not collected free - the smaller the bin, the lower the cost. My friends have a micro bin for trash - in a society where a much higher per capita level of waste is generated, they send very little to the landfill. There ARE solutions.
Jamaica has no sanitary landfills - all our waste disposal sites are simply dumps. They are not properly secured, there is no collection of gases or leachate, they are not lined, animals have full access, garbage pickers (including children) work in unsanitary and dangerous conditions and they all burn several times a year, although not at the scale now being experienced in Kingston.
Riverton is the largest dump, accepting about 60 per cent of Jamaica's waste, an estimated 600,000 tonnes per week, according to the executive director of the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA), Jennifer Edwards. Despite the lack of modern solid waste management at Riverton during its history, low-income housing has been built in proximity.
Whenever there is a major fire at Riverton - about once a year over the last decade - the NSWMA's executive director is heard to defend manifestly poor management with the cry of lack of resources. The chief executive officer of the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), which has regulatory oversight for NSWMA's operation of the Riverton dump, is always on the verge of taking enforcement action. The ministers of health and environment are either platitudinous or silent. Weeks before the smoke hazard has abated, the fire will be said to be out. The dangerous conditions for public health will be framed as a "nuisance". A high-level committee will be formed and it will meet a few times before all the responsible government agencies lapse into their customary inertia. Renewed efforts to construct a waste-to-energy plant will be announced. The entirely insufficient recycling programmes in Jamaica will be mentioned as progress.
There is no question that the NSWMA has been grossly negligent in the handling of Jamaica's solid waste, nor that both NEPA and the Ministry of Health have failed in their statutory duties as regulators. But we citizens have also failed - we consume and discard our waste as if we have proper waste facilities. We put our garbage at the gate and complain if it is not collected, never for one moment considering how we might reduce the amount we throw away. Many of us discard garbage at the side of the road, out of car windows, in gullies or we set fire to it. Even as Riverton burned, bush fires also raged in Jack's Hill and Gordon Town. Given the parlous state of the Jamaican economy, we all must accept that there is not going to be enough money for our increasingly wasteful consumption patterns and take personal responsibility for the amount and type of waste we produce.
There are three simple steps that could be taken to significantly reduce the amount of waste going to Riverton.
No 1: Identify several sites in Kingston to take organic waste - garden cuttings, vegetable matter, biodegradable waste from markets. More than 60 per cent of our waste falls into this category. An industrial chipper on the site would speed up decomposition.
No 2: Set up a place to take waste tyres - all that is needed is a fence and a roof, to prevent the collection of water in the tyres and the resultant mosquito breeding. No more tyres at Riverton.
No 3: Get plastic recycling working. There needs to be many, many drop off points in Kingston - the new company, Recycling Partners of Jamaica, supported by JEEP funding and the private sector needs to scale up as a matter of urgency.
If we did just those three things, we would reduce the amount of waste going to Riverton by almost 70 per cent. These initiatives could all be funded by the environmental levy and should happen without delay.
And then we need to find an alternative site for a modern landfill for Kingston. Riverton should be capped and closed - the situation there has been allowed to deteriorate to a point where it simply is too expensive and too difficult to remedy. Some of the people who now earn their living at Riverton could be employed at the other sites - but not all of them. This is an inescapable and troubling fact - but the situation at Riverton threatens the health of roughly a million people. It simply cannot continue.
Given the manifest failure of the NSWMA to carry out its mandate, the entire board and the executive director should resign immediately. There should be no further leniency extended by NEPA on its environmental permits - it must finally, once and for all, take its role as an environmental regulator seriously. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms makes this guarantee for every Jamaican citizen: The right to enjoy a healthy and productive environment free from the threat of injury or damage from environmental abuse and degradation of the ecological heritage.
This latest Riverton fire is clear evidence of the infringement of those rights by the State, whose major role is to uphold them.
- Diana McCaulay is the CEO of the Jamaica Environment Trust