Business owners and people working in Port-of-Spain once again were bracing for the worst yesterday after the capital became engulfed in smoke due to a fire at the Beetham landfill.The fire occurred an hour after T&T Solid Waste Management Company Ltd (SWMCOL) workers ended their third consecutive day of protest. However, the workers maintained they did not start it.
"We did not start the fire. The workers were inside the lunchroom when we started to see the smoke. Every year we see fires happen in the dump," said Jason Thomas, general secretary of the Industrial General Sanitation Workers Union (IGSWU).Last January, the city was also engulfed with toxic smog after a large fire burned in the landfill for days.
Yesterday, another large fire caused thick smoke to waft into the city and caused a traffic backlog along the Beetham Highway.At about 2 pm yesterday, the workers noticed the landfill was ablaze. Thomas, who was on site when T&T Guardian visited, said the workers had nothing to do with the fire being set.He said it was not uncommon for fires to occur as there were many combustible items in the landfill. He said the workers finished their protest around 1 pm and those who were still in the area were in the lunchroom when they saw the fire.
Thomas maintained the union would not encourage any action that would be harmful to the general public."We always have a peaceful story. We don't stop vehicles from coming in or doing their job," he said.IGSWU is a union made up entirely of SWMCOL workers.He added: "We do so much work in the landfill but we get no respect.
"People want to say all these things about us but they do not give us credit for all the hard work that we do. The workers continue to face all these hazards on a daily basis."He maintained that the improper way in which garbage is disposed often led to fires."It is not a landfill, it is a dump. On a day when it is hot a battery can explode and cause a fire and the garbage can catch afire," Thomas said.
He said usually they were able to contain a fire before it escalated into a full blaze but since the workers were protesting they were not able to detect the fire when it began."This was not a man-made fire. Usually there is someone in the back who would notice if there was a fire but all the workers were protesting," he said.Thomas said it was not possible for the workers in the landfill to start the fire because it was they who have to help contain them.
"Why would we start the fire if we are the ones who have to contain it? The landfill men will be the ones who have to out the fire."We have the experience in extinguishing fires like this but we never get the proper safety gear to out the fire," he said.
WASA, Fire Service on scene
Yesterday, SWMCOL chair Nalini Sooklal said the San Juan Laventille Regional Corporation, Water and Sewerage Authority (WASA) and the Fire Services were on the scene to help contain the fire while officers from the Besson Street Police Station provided security.She said since the last large fire last year SWMCOL had been working to find ways to contain fires more efficiently in the dump. Among the new methods being used are a cold fire technology, which is like a foam.
A release from the Environment Management Authority (EMA) yesterday said preliminary reports indicated the fire was seen over the southwestern portion of the landfill. The EMA estimated that approximately 25 per cent of the landfill was on fire."Current surveillance of the area suggests that the smoke, coupled with the fluctuating wind direction, is impacting Sea Lots and Beetham areas at this time," the EMA said in a statement as it warned public health was of grave concern.
It also mobilised teams to monitor air quality in Laventille, Sea Lots and the Beetham areas and will continue to conduct regular air quality monitoring tests as the need arises and advise the public accordingly.The EMA also has notified the North West Regional Health Authority (NWRHA) and public health officials to be prepared for people coming in with possible respiratory problems.