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Steve Ashley: Rescue NSWMA from the dump

Published:Sunday | April 10, 2016 | 4:00 AM
Jennifer Edwards, then executive director of the NSWMA, is a picture of despair amid billowing smoke from a massive blaze at the Riverton City dump last March.
Steve Ashley
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The National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) was set up by an act of Parliament to manage and regulate solid waste in Jamaica. The concept, as envisaged by the act, was that the Authority would be primarily responsible for the regulatory functions, while encouraging private-sector entities to provide services to carry out the actual collection and disposal of solid waste.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, successive executive directors arrogated unto themselves the operational aspect of solid-waste management, creating not only a conflict of interest - as an entity should not regulate itself - but also a burgeoning establishment that opened itself to mismanagement and corruption.

This was compounded by the executive directorship being gifted to high-profile politicians who saw the board of management as an irritant to them rather than policymakers who should guide the process of development.

Successive governments have never seen the need to prioritise this entity by providing adequate funding to lay the foundation for creating a proper sanitary landfill. Hence what obtains throughout the island are veritable dumps.

This approach has proven to be shortsighted, as the amount of funds expended so far to extinguish fires, particularly at the Riverton City dump, if allocated to the Authority, would go a far way in preventing these fires in the first place.

Without a proper sanitary landfill, it is extremely difficult to meet even the most elementary environmental standards, as dumps do not have the adequate protection to avoid dangerous contaminants seeping into domestic water supplies or polluting the atmosphere, or preventing fires caused by spontaneous combustion. Conditions there also make it easy for arsonists to start fires.

With respect to the recently published report by the Office of the Public Defender on the devastating fire of March 7, 2015 and the environmental disaster it triggered, this report is a fairly true reflection of the events leading up to the fire. Consequently, it is difficult for me, as the chairman of the NSWMA during that period, to find fault with the report.

 

NEED TO BE FRUGAL

But if the conditions that obtained during my tenure are not addressed substantively, the problems experienced in the past will only deteriorate further.

That said, however, I certainly will defend the board of directors who relentlessly tried to impress upon management the need to be as frugal as possible with the limited resources we had, and to maximise their efforts in the interest of good governance.

The difficulty we had was getting timely and accurate information from management that would allow us to make informed decisions. At some point, we were not sure if this was as a result of incompetence, stonewalling, or both. Letters were written by me to the executive director and copied to the minister expressing my dissatisfaction in this regard. This, however, made little or no impact.

We made every effort to rationalise the authority to conform with the act of Parliament by trying to separate the four regional entities in an effort to make them autonomous, with the intention that they would carry out the operational functions. The NSWMA would then revert to its core function as regulator. This position was met with stiff opposition by management and not much support from the Ministry of Local Government.

With regard to the financial debacle that exists at the Authority, this was not caused entirely by the management under my watch, as not only were there no financial returns since 2007, there was a suspicious fire weeks before I was appointed chairman, which curiously destroyed only financial records in the finance department.

Even with that, however, it was painfully obvious to the board over time that management and staff of the finance department and, in particular, the finance director, were not up to the task of resolving the issue at hand. It took members of the finance committee of the board to physically try to sort out the problems, but over time, they were frustrated by the lack of cooperation on the part of management.

We instructed management to hire a consultant to assist in bringing our books up to date. Some work was done, but the board became suspicious that the work may not have been up to the required standard. Our internal auditor also expressed doubts as to the veracity of the work done.

Because of the concerns expressed by the board, the executive director commissioned another consultant to look at the finance department to see how it could be strengthened to be more efficient. It is my understanding that this work was done and a report was submitted to the executive director. However, the board was not made privy to that report.

I am writing this article in response to the public defender's report, which was published last Tuesday, as having been personally ridiculed by the former minister on national TV for carrying out my duties as expected of the chairman of a statutory body.

 

VOLUNTEERS

I am gratified that this report has exonerated the board for the action it took, but I would hope that no other chairman or board will ever be treated in this manner again. After all, we are all volunteers for our country. These are not paid posts, and we should not be disrespected for political expediency sake.

There has been a school of thought in the public space that Ms Jennifer Edwards' contract was not renewed as a reaction by the board to the fire, or my own arrogance. I hope the public defender's report should put that to rest, as it clearly shows that we would have been derelict in our duty if we did not take action. We did, and we may still be accused of dereliction of duty for not acting earlier.

As to my creating a crisis within a crisis, as was stated by the former minister, I would posit that, on the contrary, I was resolving a crisis within a crisis.

What is my opinion on the way forward for NSWMA?

The Authority should revert to being a regulatory agency responsible for licensing, regulating and managing private-sector entities that would be charged with the responsibility to collect and dispose of solid waste.

Government should seek out partners to acquire all the dumps islandwide for conversion to economic zones with the express purpose of generating economic activity, including the development of waste to electricity, waste to biofuels, waste to fertiliser, and any other by-products that can be derived from solid waste.

Since most dumps are near depressed areas, efforts could be made to find joint-venture partners to engage community non-governmental organisations to provide employment, while developing the entrepreneurial skills for members of these communities.

If properly thought out and implemented, these ideas will not only reduce or eliminate government spending on solid waste activity. Serious reform would protect the environment, provide much-needed jobs and entrepreneurial skills training, while attracting foreign investments with the potential of earning foreign exchange

- K. Steve Ashley is a former chairman of the NSWMA. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.