Anna-Lisa Paul and Bobie-Lee Dixon
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Citizens forced to flee capital
Strong, potentially toxic smoke and fumes from 12 fires in the Beetham dump, reportedly lit by angry Beetham Estate residents, yesterday forced the closure of several nearby companies and schools after it blanketed Port-of-Spain and environs. Staff, teachers and children were sent home. Reports said they were adversely affected. There were reports that people living in the Port-of-Spain area suffering from asthma also were badly affected. Fires were reportedly burning at 12 separate spots on the landfill site. Up to 4.30 pm yesterday, the T&T Solid Waste Management Company Limited (SWMCOL) said it had experienced only “limited success in containing some of the affected areas.” SWMCOL said that resulted in some relief to the Port-of-Spain areas and environs with road and ambient visibility notably improved. “However, SWMCOL staff and contributing agencies are continuing efforts to contain the fires on the eastern side of the landfill which are still alight at the moment.”
This means that the threat could continue into today for citizens living, working or conducting any form of activity in and around the city. Hundreds of drivers heading into Port-of-Spain early yesterday had to drive in dangerously low visibility near the area, barely making out the vehicle in front of them, it was reported. “I came to town around 6.30 am and I couldn’t see when I was driving over the flyover (near John John). The place was completely covered in smoke. “I just took my time and kept driving. It was very frightening,” a motorist said. Police said no accidents were reported from the incident. Up until late afternoon, a strong scent filled the air as far as downtown Port-of-Spain. The incident forced the intervention of the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) which, from 4 am, began co-ordinating responses from several agencies, including the Fire Services and the Environmental Management Authority (EMA).
ODPM CEO Dr Stephen Ramroop, describing the disturbance not as a disaster but an environmental hazard, called for the closure of the dump. He said the ODPM was on alert from Sunday night after reports that protesting Beetham residents had lit fires in the dump. He said visibility was so poor early in the morning that motorists had to put on their fog lights and officers were called out to direct traffic. Ramroop said when the sun came up it dissipated much of the smoke and some of the toxicity. The incident believed to have sparked the residents into starting the fires unfolded on Sunday morning after Beetham resident Randy Williams was reportedly shot in the legs by the police on mobile patrol near the landfill. The police said the man was shot after he repeatedly threw stones at their vehicle and refused to follow their orders to stop doing so. SWMCOL general manager, sales, marketing and communications, George Elias, said the company worked assiduously with the Fire Services to bring the fires under control yesterday. The Disaster Management Unit of the San Juan/Laventille Regional Corporation, the EMA and the ODPM also provided valuable support to the effort, he said. He said the fires, which “started on Sunday and were unplanned,” and were burning at more than 12 separate locations on the landfill, making it extremely difficult to manage and control.
SWMCOL appealed to users of the Beetham dump to divert to its two other landfill sites at Forres Park and Guanapo to assist in bringing the situation under control in the shortest possible time.
Early yesterday, National Petroleum (NP) also sent out a release stating its head office at National Drive, Sea Lots, near the Beetham landfill, was closed for the day as employees were adversely affected. T&T Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) president Devanand Sinanan said he got reports that a number of primary and secondary schools near the Beetham had to be closed because of the smoke and fumes. “The principal has that discretionary power,” he said. Excel Composite School in the Beetham, St Phillip’s Government Primary School on the Old St Joseph Road, Laventille, and Success/Laventille Composite School were all reportedly affected by the smoke and fumes emanating from the Beetham fires. This was the second time in under a year that fires at the landfill had left Port-of-Spain and environs blanketed in toxic smoke. On May 23 last year, fires also raged at the site and the authorities battled for over four days to bring them under control.
The latest Beetham fires also come one month after 11 oil spills devastated T&T’s southwestern coast.