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Toxic city - Report says communities very high risk after exposure to Riverton fire fumes

Published:Tuesday | May 5, 2015 | 12:00 AMEdmond Campbell
A parent of this girl rushes to take her to the doctor after she fainted. She was having difficulty breathing because of smoke coming from the Riverton fire in March.

Very high risk! Several communities within a five-kilometre (3.1 miles) radius of the Riverton dump were given that designation as a result of their exposure to toxins during the first seven days of what is being described as "the most detrimental fire in the history of fires" at the solid waste disposal facility.

The fire, in March, negatively affected the ambient air quality and human health, particularly in communities located to the north, north-east, and north-west sections of the dump.

This means that persons living or working in areas such as Pembroke Hall, Molynes Gardens, Washington Gardens, Duhaney Park, Plantation Heights, Marcus Garvey Drive, among other communities, would have felt the brunt of the negative impact of the smoke from the dump.

At the same time, communities located up to a six-kilometre radius (3.7 miles) in all directions from the dump, including, but not limited to, Half-Way Tree, Havendale, Edgewater, downtown Kingston, Meadowbrook, and Caymanas Gardens were categorised as 'high risk'.

Yesterday, the National Environment and Planning Agency released a report on the air-quality monitoring and associated tests conducted during the recent fire at the Riverton dump over the period March 11-24, this year. Data collection and analysis were extended to March 30, 2015, in order to gauge and account for the lingering effects of the fire, which continued to smoulder up to March 29, 2015.

The report ranked the fire at the dump as the most detrimental in the history of fires at the solid waste disposal facility.

According to the report, the zone of influence from the Riverton fire spanned 11 kilometres in all directions. "This represents the widest zone of influence to date caused by a fire at the Riverton dump. As can be expected, because of the relatively low emission point of the smoke from the fire, the communities closest to the facility would be most severely impacted."

It is expected that the Ministry of Health will interpret the findings of the study and predict the impact on human health. Similarly, other stakeholders in education and industry and commerce would have made insightful contributions regarding the impact of the fire.

The fire at the Riverton dump, which forced the closure of schools and businesses, has cost two major public bodies $311 million.

Acting Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Local Government Dionne Jennings told Parliament's Public Accounts Committee yesterday that the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) racked up $251 million in costs to put out the massive fire.

The Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM) spent $60 million as it assisted in efforts to put out the blaze.

Jennings noted that auditors at the NSWMA have, to date, verified $232.8 million of the invoices presented to the agency for payment. The agency has paid $107.6 million associated with the cost of putting out the fire.

Committee member Karl Samuda queried whether the acting permanent secretary was aware of any additional costs that might have accrued to the Government during the fire.

Jennings indicated that costs that might arise as a result of persons who sought medical care would have to be addressed by the Ministry of Health. "The medical bills would not have come to the NSWMA or the ODPEM," she said.

"There is supposed to be a debriefing session for all the stakeholders at the national emergency centre, and so all that information will be collated," she added.

Quizzed by committee chairman Audley Shaw about the new arrangements in place to prevent fires at the dump in the future, Jennings said short-, medium-, and longer-term measures are now being considered to prevent fires.

However, the acting permanent secretary said she could not provide any assurances that there would be no more fires at the Riverton dump. "I won't promise that there will be no other fires at Riverton, but the entity has taken steps and will continue to do so to prevent that," she stressed.

In March, the fire at the Riverton dump blanketed sections of Kingston and St Andrew and Portmore in St Catherine. There were also reports that sections of St Thomas and Clarendon were affected by the smoke over the period.