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SWMCOL gets more help
Aerial footage from the National Security Operations Centre (NSOC) yesterday showed strong winds shifting a toxic plume of smoke, a quarter-a-mile wide and a mile long, billowing from the still-burning Beetham landfill and moving towards the Five Islands. However, by late afternoon the winds had shifted back and a thin veil of smoke again enveloped Port-of-Spain as it had done earlier in the day. Pedestrians walked through the streets wearing masks and office workers began experiencing symptoms of nausea, vomiting and throat and eye irritations. The Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management (ODPM) said it had procured dust masks for the Port-of-Spain City Corporation to distribute to high-risk areas. After four days, efforts to completely extinguish 12 fires at the Beetham dump, believed to be maliciously started, have not been successful. One fire lingered yesterday and this again caused panic. “We are treating with one large area at the moment,” Solid Waste Management Company Ltd (SWMCOL) chairman Nalini Sooklal told the media during a press conference. “We have increased resources and are feverishly working on it,” she added.
Asked the size of the area under combustion, Sooklal said she could not say. What she did say, however, was that the landfill covered two acres of land. Sooklal said SWMCOL, with the assistance of the San Juan Laventille and Diego Martin regional corporations, which were providing trucks and equipment, was battling with a fire that was “two-fold. “There is the surface fire and the sub-surface component,” she said. Sooklal and key stakeholders concerned with the fire, including the ODPM, Environmental Management Authority (EMA) and National Security Ministry, met at the NSOC at Knowsley, Queen’s Park Savannah, Port-of-Spain, yesterday morning to discuss strategy. Minister of the Environment and Water Resources Ganga Singh told the T&T Guardian Cabinet decided yesterday to deploy considerable resources to SWMCOL and the Ministry of Local Government, under which it fell, to intensify efforts to extinguish the fire. He said the engineering corps of the Defence Force also had been deployed.
Minister of Works Dr Suruj Rambachan was reportedly seen at the landfill yesterday afternoon. After a 90-minute meeting, NSOC executive director Commander Garvin Heerah, ODPM CEO Dr Stephen Ramroop, Port-of-Spain Mayor Raymond Tim Kee and Sooklal addressed the media. Heerah said the NSOC was alerted after the fires but on the advice of the EMA and the ODPM he was satisfied the matter was being addressed. “There is to be no evacuation of Port-of-Spain,” he said. Asked about an evacuation, Tim Kee said the city corporation would be guided by the EMA and other agencies. Ramroop said one of the indicators to tell the ODPM what was happening was an increase in the number of patients with respiratory ailments at the hospitals. “There has been no increase in people coming to the emergency departments with respiratory ailments,” he said, adding a lot of agencies were pooling their resources and commanding the situation.
Results of EMA tests showed that particulates in the air near Sea Lots were 13 times above the acceptable level and ten times more in Port-of-Spain.
However, Ramroop said, that alone did not determine whether the incident was to be deemed an environmental disaster and noted EMA tests showed an improved contamination level. He said lighting fires with plastic at home and jogging around the Queen’s Park Savannah could give more pollution than what was being experienced from the dump. His statement has incurred the wrath of environmentalists. Aerial footage of the smoke was shown to the media inside a “high security” room at the NSOC by a captain from the Air Operations Unit. It showed the long mass of smoke emanating from the landfill at 10 am yesterday. The captain explained that earlier in the morning, the entire northern front, including Port-of-Spain, was covered in the landfill smoke.
Drivers heading to Port-of-Spain early yesterday complained they could hardly see on the Beetham Highway because of the smoke. By mid-morning, the winds had moved the smoke southwest, away from land. The Met Office at Piarco said it had been recording southeasterly winds all week. It is a northeasterly wind that would deflect the smoke to the southwest.
Chief Fire Officer: Fire deep-seated
Chief Fire Officer Nayar Rampersad said yesterday the fire at the Beetham landfill was “deep- seated,” under heavy layers of garbage and that was why it was not being extinguished quickly.
He said fire officers from the Northern Division, from the beginning, have been working with SWMCOL to get the fire under control. “But it is labour intensive and requires heavy machinery to extinguish. There is a whole pile of garbage that has settled there for months and years. “The fire is smouldering deep under the garbage heap and heavy equipment is needed to turn over the rubbish and that’s why it is not being extinguished quickly,” he added. Rampersad said the Fire Services was one of the first responders to the Beetham hazard and had been one of the more aggressive respondents. He said officers have also been assisting the ODPM in making calls to relevant agencies.