A black, poisonous liquid run-off from the Guanapo Landfill has polluted the surrounding rivers and sub-surface water for 30 years, contaminating water used for drinking and crop irrigation in eastern and central Trinidad. This came to light after a meeting of the Parliament Joint Select Committee (JSC) on December 9 last year, where members of the Solid Waste Management Co Ltd's (SWMCOL) executive were questioned about the dump. Of the three landfills in Trinidad, Guanapo isn't usually the one at the centre of controversy. However, not many people know that a 1980 government-commissioned Solid Waste Master Plan recommended that the Guanapo Landfill be closed. Today, it remains open for business and the dump has continued to taint the two rivers that run on either side, as well as unexplored ground water reserves used to feed the country.
The Guanapo Landfill sits in a small valley near the foot of the Northern Range, between the Guanapo River and the Guanapo Tributary, both of which feed into the Caroni. Everyday, trucks carrying all kinds of solid waste-from spoiled foodstuff to broken appliances to car batteries, branches and cut grass-trundle past security through the landfill gates to add to the ever-growing mountain of refuse it contains. For years authorities have been aware that leachate - a black "juice" that is produced during the decomposition of solid waste-has been seeping out of the dump and into surface and underground water supplies. Environmentalists and other concerned citizens are convinced that this pollution is hurting the ecological balance in Guanapo and affecting the agricultural crops you eat and the water you drink.
Residents around the dump are increasingly aware of how contaminated their rivers are becoming. They can no longer use the river water for domestic purposes. When it comes into contact with human skin, it causes rashes and itching, they say. They don't want to think about what might happen if the water is ingested. "I know when this river was a river," said Gary Douglas, a resident of Guanapo for more than 30 years. "We used to drink the water. And now you can't do that anymore because of the dump. I used to plant garden. Now I have to [steal] the Government water to plant."
But the "government water" may not be safe either. The dump is uphill and minutes away from the Guanapo Water Treatment plant, which is fed by the same rivers and groundwater that are contaminated by the dump's leachate, said the JSC vice-chair Lyndira Oudit. "What I recall from my own research with the water treatment plant is that the source of the water is being contaminated in significant amounts, and all of that is feeding as far as central [Trinidad], and in fact one of the reports said as far as Mayaro," she added during the JSC session. At the plant, the polluted water is treated, but to what extent? When asked if reporters could visit the plant to get a sense of how the water is purified or speak to the authorities' water experts, Water and Sewage Management Authority (WASA) communications manager Ellen Lewis said approval had been granted, but Guardian Media would not be allowed into the plant or granted interviews until "some business was finalised."
A national health hazard
Meanwhile, no one seems sure about the extent to which polluted water is causing a national health hazard. Sources tell us that a study was done between 2006 and 2008 that looked at the impact of the Beetham and Guanapo landfills on surface and sub-surface water. This study allegedly confirms that contaminants from the dump are polluting the ground and surface water and gives results of tests done. The Trinidad Guardian has not yet been able to obtain a copy of this study. Roger Belix, a concerned citizen, began to notice several years ago that people were contracting illnesses in Arima. The illnesses developed in strange patterns with no explanation. "We found it strange that both husband and wife suffering from cancer, people getting kidney problems," he said. Respiratory diseases were also on the rise.
In 2009, the Jonathan Belix Foundation (which Belix heads) got the Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (CARIRI) to test tap water at strategic points in Arima, including the Arima Boys RC School and at a company in the O'Meara Industrial Estate. At the foundation's request, CARIRI tested for poisonous metals in the water, not for bacteria as WASA does, Belix said. The results were disturbing; the level of mercury found in all the tap water was 0.003 milligrammes per litre (mg/L). The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that not more than 0.002 mg/L is allowable to protect public health. That means that the tap water tested contains 50 per cent more mercury than the internationally allowed amount.