Sat | Dec 10, 2016

Riverton fire and public administration

Published:Sunday | March 22, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Jennifer Edwards talks on her phone near a section of the fire at the Riverton dump recently.

Now that wi bun har out, let us see who will be stupid enough to take Jennifer Edwards' job as executive director of the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA).

That jackass will be joining the jackasses heading a police force that can't reduce crime, a fire service that can't put out fires, a works agency that can't repair and maintain roads, hospitals which can't deliver acceptable health care, an urban bus service which can't move commuters, a water commission which can't deliver water after a few weeks without rain, courts which can't try cases in any reasonable time, schools which can't deliver quality education. And the list goes on. We should bun dem out. For consistency's sake, if nothing else.

I got a text from 'civil society' claiming responsibility for Miss Edwards' ouster.

"Yes we can Jamaica civil society. Jennifer Edwards' contract will not be renewed," the note declared triumphantly.

The arsonists, whom the chief of the Fire Services is 100 per cent certain are responsible for setting the fire, have remained silent. Not even a little ISIS or Boko Haram-type statement claiming responsibility. Perhaps their only interest is to eat a food out of the burning garbage at Riverton. Mission: accomplished.

The board of the NSWMA has issued a solid waste release reeking with hypocrisy and supported by leaked memos which this newspaper carried in a triumphant Page 1 story, 'Burnt!' without a word from Miss Edwards on the other side.

The contract of the incompetent Miss Edwards ended on February 25, and the board has decided not to renew it. But she has been asked to stay on, post-fire, to March 26! The board chastised her in October 2013 over her financial management skills, her unilateral action in a matter, and her intransigence. And again in May 2014 over the management of the Riverton waste disposal site. But she remained in the job to preside over the putting out of the 2015 annual fire! And this board expects to be taken seriously!

Miss Edwards is a political appointee, like several others before her. She has been a political representative for the People's National Party and is close to the prime minister. This may well explain the security of her 'intransigence', and this fact of her status takes us closer to the heart of the matter: political executive responsibility.

The NSWMA board is prepared to entrust Deputy Chairman Morin Seymour with overseeing the day-to-day operations of the agency after Edwards goes. Seymour as head of the Kingston Restoration Company (KRC) has had some case successes in downtown restoration of which he is everlastingly proud, but the KRC has been a miserable failure in achieving the broad objective of downtown renewal.

I don't hold this against Morin. It bigger than him. If he sticks the role of interim head of the NSWMA long enough, he will preside over his own Riverton fire. Unless there are radical changes. Changes which are bigger than him and the NSWMA.

Under every executive director of whatever political colour or no political colour at all, there has been at least one major fire at Riverton every year since 2005, except for 2013. These man-made disasters are more predictable than hurricanes as natural disasters!

 

Edwards' competence

 

I know nothing about the specifics of Miss Edwards' competence or incompetence. But managing solid waste disposal is not rocket science. Following long-standing standard operating procedure in the civil service, managers have been switched from one agency to another and from one department to another in Government, taking with them managerial skill and experience and managing very different entities successfully. The same has happened in the private sector here and abroad, with some celebrated cases successfully moving not just from one company to another, but from one industry to another. There is no real reason, when the heat and the smoke of our passions subside, to believe that Miss Edwards is any more stupid or any more welcoming of failure than the majority of her critics.

Miss Edwards, incompetence and all, is nothing but a convenient scapegoat whose sacrificing appeases but does not fix. She goes. But the conditions for Riverton fires remain and will do so until the cost of the known fix can be met over and above annual operational costs. Riverton is not a landfill. It is an open solid waste disposal site which should never have been positioned on the edge of the city of Kingston in the first instance. Here is the NSWMA itself on its website about what a proper landfill is:

"What is a Landfill?

There are two ways to bury Solid Waste:

n Dump - an open hole in the ground where trash is buried and that has various animals (rats, mice, birds) swarming around. (This is most people's idea of a landfill!)

n Landfill - carefully designed structure built into or on top of the ground in which trash is isolated from the surrounding environment (groundwater, air, rain). This isolation is accomplished with a bottom liner and daily covering of soil.

n Sanitary landfill - landfill that uses a clay liner to isolate the trash from the environment

n Municipal solid waste (MSW) landfill - uses a synthetic (plastic) liner to isolate the trash from the environment

 

caused by corruption

 

To put a proper landfill in place is a multibillion-dollar project. Nationwide boss Cliff Hughes, while moderating an anti-corruption summit last Monday which was jointly hosted by UTech's College of Business and Management and National Integrity Action, boldly declared the state of Riverton is caused by corruption. The Inter-American Bank, Hughes reminded, had put up years ago US$10 million to be matched by the Jamaican Government to convert Riverton into a proper landfill. Never happened. Cliff reported his first Riverton Fire in 1986!

The proffered technical solutions to Riverton and its recurring fires are few and managerially easy to understand. Even Jennifer Edwards, now declared irredeemably daft, could grasp them.

From the comforts of academia and without including projected costs, Caribbean Policy Research Institute has offered five strategic waste-management techniques and waste-minimisation strategies, including to ensure that the waste sheds are operated within the ambit of the law; security of the site and controlled authorised access; fire prevention and reduction measures; establishing a sanitary landfill; and relocating the waste management facility for the Kingston Metropolitan Region away from Riverton.

The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) through its CEO, Diana McCaulay, is proposing waste separation and keeping organic waste and tyres out of Riverton, reducing the waste stream going there by up to 70 per cent. JET/McCaulay, too, wants relocation.

"Riverton should be capped and closed."

 

Use Ferry River

 

But I like best the short-term solution offered by a man pon spot who accused the Government of not being willing to listen to likkle man like him on the ground who knows the situation: The Ferry River runs by the dump. Back it up. Install a pump under proper supervision. And have water ready for rapid and effective response at the onset of a fire.

A 2007 report, nine fires ago, on Management of Hazardous and Solid Wastes in Jamaica put out by the Sustainable Development and Regional Planning Division of the Planning Institute of Jamaica noted that, "Despite efforts at improvement, the current capacity (institutional, personnel, financial, technology, equipment) of the NSWMA is inadequate to efficiently and effectively manage the increasing generation of solid waste and the changing waste stream. Additionally, the Authority is burdened by the dual and conflicting role it has to play as collector and regulator. Judging from the size of the fleet and volume of waste to be moved, NSWMA's capacity for transporting waste is limited."

Meanwhile, if the smoke nuisance for more than a week from the largest Riverton fire ever had not had such a major dislocating impact on all aspects of life in the KMR and well beyond, we could dead wid laugh over the Don Quixote environmental enforcement efforts of NEPA! The environmental protection agency has been routinely threatening to suspend NSWMA's permit to operate the Riverton dump over multiple breaches! Then what? The NSWMA is sole operator and Riverton its KMR dump site serving 37 per cent of the Jamaican population with no real alternative.

We have been staring through the toxic smoke with runny eyes and tight chests at raw political negligence over many years and in breach of the current provisions of the Charter of Rights in our Constitution for the right to enjoyment of a healthy and productive environment. The Solid Waste Minister, with far greater responsibility and accountability for the Riverton fiasco, should follow poor scapegoat Jennifer Edwards through the exit door. Symbolically allowing a fresh start at the level of the executive of Government. For the 14-member civil society alliance of business, NGOs and civic organisations, and church, is quite right: "We've had enough of Riverton fires. The time has come and we can't allow this to happen any longer."

Strategy and stamina are going to matter much. Achieving resignations may be symbolic, but is hardly a solution.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.