Wed | Jan 16, 2019

We didn't start the fire

Published:Sunday | March 22, 2015 | 3:00 PMDr Michael Abrahams
Dr Michael Abrahams

While checking out a news feed on Facebook last week I came across a video clip of CVM Television's Garfield Burford interviewing our prime minister about the Riverton City fire. My initial reaction was one of glee as I was pleased to see Mrs Simpson Miller engaging the media, something that I do not see enough.

But when she was asked to share her views regarding the performance of the executive director of the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA), Jennifer Edwards, and the possibility of her being held accountable for mismanagement of the Riverton City Dump and removed from her post, the prime minister responded by saying: "I'm sure she wouldn't set the fire" and "She wasn't there. She was nowhere near there". I sat in disbelief. I had to play the clip again to make sure that I was not mistaken. It was like 'The Twilight Zone' meets 'The Ity and Fancy Cat Show'.

The fire at the Riverton City dump is the largest in the 120 acre facility's 45 year history. A 36 member crew comprised of six units from the Jamaica Fire Brigade has been battling the blaze, which started on March 11. Initial reports stated that half of the dump was ablaze, but by March 13 the brigade reported that the entire facility was on fire, with its commissioner being convinced that the disaster was the result of arson.

As the noxious and pungent smoke billowed into the air over Kingston, St Andrew and St Catherine, some businesses and schools were closed, over 800 persons reported to hospitals with symptoms, health and medical centres were overwhelmed, schoolchildren collapsed from asthmatic and panic attacks, and the GSAT examination was rescheduled, with the cost to put out the fire reported to be $272 million.

The Riverton City fire is a bonafide public health disaster. As a matter of fact, the dump has been a disaster from before the present conflagration even began. Large fires occur there almost annually, costing the country $128 million since 2011.
Also, according to the University of the West Indies-based Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI), a study performed by them has found that the proximity of the Riverton watershed to mangroves and the Duhaney River has resulted in significant water pollution in those areas, as well as in Hunt's Bay. Their research also found that the air quality in the vicinity has been compromised by the presence of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and other volatile organic compounds. As a result, persons living nearby have been afflicted with respiratory and cardiac symptoms and illnesses, dizziness and disorientation. Not surprisingly, the institute reports that the country is in urgent need of a general waste-management strategy.

The National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) had issued environmental permits to the NSWMA to manage the dump, which, by the way is supposed to be a landfill. But now NEPA has announced its intention to take action against NSWMA for breaches of the terms and conditions of two of the permits.
Firstly, for failure to compact garbage and then cover it with a layer of soil or other suitable material, which would, among other things, prevent contact with air and reduce the risk of fires. And secondly, for not putting an emergency fire-fighting system in place. As a result of the present fiasco, the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) is also taking legal action against the NSWMA.

In the meantime, in the face of deafening public outcry, Ms Edwards' contract has not been renewed. According to the embattled executive director, however, the issue is not one of incompetence but one of diminished resources. For example, she states that 274 trucks are needed but that the agency only possesses 55, and some persons have embarked on a mission to convince us that she is being targeted because of her gender. But based on the information available, it would appear that Ms Edwards lacks the attitude and the aptitude for the job, because there is so much more that could be done to improve our solid waste management that is not being done or has not been seriously considered.
Measures such as separating biodegradable from non-biodegradable materials, encouraging the populace to separate plastics from other garbage, recycling plastic, paper and glass, creating fire buffers at the site, setting up waste-to-energy programmes, exploring pumping water from the Duhaney River to control fires, using discarded tyres to produce materials to fill potholes and construct roads and fencing and securing the venue.

With a disaster of this magnitude, one would expect persons in positions of leadership and authority in relevant ministries to engage and address us and provide regular updates, issue warnings and offer helpful advice. However, little has been heard from the Minister of Local Government, Noel Arscott; the Minister of Water, Land, Environment and Climate Change, Robert Pickersgill, and the Minister of Health, Fenton Ferguson.
On the other hand, acting Chief Medical Officer, Dr Marion Bullock-DuCasse, stated that the smoke emanating from Riverton "will have no lasting effects", a statement which can be categorically rejected as established fact, as when rotting meat, decaying vegetable matter, plastics, tyres, batteries and a variety of chemicals combust, it is well documented that carcinogenic and other harmful compounds will be liberated into the atmosphere, find their way into our water tables and food chains and have the potential to cause chronic illness.

The debacle smacks of slackness at all levels, from those who may have allegedly started the fire, to the NSWMA, to the government, which appears to lack insight, vision, discipline and integrity and continues to show a lack of respect of and concern for the populace of this country. In the meantime, we the people need to do our own research and learn how we can manage our own solid waste, as those charged with that responsibility cannot be trusted. We can start by separating plastic from the other components of our garbage and transporting it to plastic collection centres to be recycled. Sometimes we have to take things into our own hands.

Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.