by Larry Smith
In a powerful communication prepared recently, Bahamian waste expert Ginny McKinney has outlined a 'trail of tears’ over the country’s shocking failure to resolve its solid waste management problems - despite spending tens of millions over decades.
Writing to the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce, Mckinney began her review in the early 1990s, when Canadian engineering group, Stantec, was commissioned by the Inter-American Development Bank to study our waste disposal issues.
Up to then, we just dumped all our garbage - including hazardous waste - in wetland areas like Big Pond off Blue Hill Road, or burned it on the Family Islands..
“Upon completion of the study (Stantec) were charged with designing a modern, fully engineered landfill for New Providence and 10 Family Islands,” Mckinney wrote.
Detailed guidance was given on how to manage these landfills, while green waste, tyres, cardboard and metals were to be diverted for recycling. Waste-to-energy facilities were suggested, but were not part of the bank's remit at the time.
The IDB contributed some $23 million for this 20-year project to protect public health and the environment, and the government kicked in another $10 million.
A large chunk was spent at the 100-acre green field site on Harrold Road that had replaced the Big Pond dump. The money paid for a fully equipped machine shop, administration building, hazardous waste storage and laboratory, a building for fire-fighting equipment, weighbridges and a gatehouse, a diesel pumping station, and a compacting machine.
The landfill site was designed to accommodate six excavated cells - lined to prevent pollution of the water table - but only the first was completed to the proper specifications. A leachate control system was included, along with a pumping station and pond for excess leachate.
"When Stantec left, Nassau had a fully prepared and equipped sanitary landfill, with a comprehensive blueprint on how to use it. Plans for other islands were in place, but it was quite a few years before any projects were put out to bid," McKinney said.
McKinney is the longtime proprietor of Waste-Not Ltd, a solid waste disposal firm that has also pioneered the country’s tentative recycling efforts. Her description of the current state of the Harrold Road landfill (which she visits daily) is deeply distressing.
“Garbage in the only lined cell is well over its suggested top-out height. The leachate system is crushed and useless, and effluent gathers around the bottom of the cell, mixed with overflow from the adjacent sewerage ponds when it rains. Due to recurring fires, emergency management meant that garbage was deposited in unlined cells never to be removed. All the administration, hazardous waste and maintenance buildings still exist, but were never fully utilised, and many components have disappeared. The compactor has remained idle most of the time."
Recycling programmes were never put in place by the government (although there are some private initiatives). Tyres and shipping pallets were once segregated on a 10-acre site, but in 2009 they were consumed by fire, and this has been repeated several times since, McKinney said.
But despite the dismal failure to implement and sustain the IDB’s fully funded plans, successive Bahamian governments have largely ignored the integrated waste management proposals from Bahamian companies over the past 20-odd years.
Apart from McKinney’s Waste-Not Ltd, other Bahamian disposal companies include Bahamas Waste, United Sanitation, and Impac Management.
An official request for waste-to-energy proposals was issued in 2008 “and we responded with well-thought-out, professionally advised and fully engineered plans,” McKinney said, "but we never received an invitation to even discuss them. Personally, I have been proposing green waste collection and processing for 25 years."
About 200,000 car tyres are discarded every year on New Providence and disposal fees have already been paid to the government at the port of entry. McKinney said a group of Bahamian companies made a bid to shred the tyres into a crumb for use in road paving. "We were offered 25 cents per tyre several years ago, which proved uneconomical."
Meanwhile, every year the Harrold Road landfill erupts in enormous toxic conflagrations that pose serious threats to public health and are a disaster for tourism that is based largely on our natural environment. During these times, poisonous fumes blanket the Cable Beach resort district and infiltrate the homes of Bahamians, while the government scrambles for the resources to extinguish the fires and manage the PR fallout.
Right after the 2012 election, the deputy prime minister’s former law firm - Davis & Co - formed a company called Renew Bahamas, whose principal had been one of Brave Davis’ clients - a Swiss financier named Gerhard Beukes. Within a year the government was finalising a contract for Beukes to take over the dump and set up a recycling operation.
The details of this government contract over a public asset have never been revealed, despite numerous requests. Renew has built a plant to sort and pack cardboard, plastics and metals for export to recyclers. Revenues from this are supposed to be split with the government. But Renew insists that it is not responsible for fixing the landfill.
Contrast this with the stringent criteria that Bahamian companies had to meet at the time Renew’s secret contract was being finalised in 2013. The government wanted the Bahamian proposers to "bear all costs” for the following activities:
“Landfill remediation, mining and de-construction (state the time frame in which you will complete same), installation of two new weighbridges with vehicle recognition software, construction of a recycling facility, acquisition of all heavy equipment necessary to maintain the site, provision of security for the landfill, transfer of all DEHS employees for your account, acquisition and installation of fire-fighting equipment, complete capital expenditure information, a detailed business proposal, proof of funding and a performance bond."
But incredibly, only a month or two ago Gerhard Beukes said Renew was asking for more public money to cover its losses - now that it had “a better understanding” of landfill management. Clearly, Renew did not, and does not, operate under the same conditions as Bahamian firms.
According to McKinney, "We know that Renew's business plan hinges on their ability to sell reclaimed material at a certain price. We now know that the government gives them $20 per ton, which at 90 tons per day, seven days per week is quite a hefty subsidy. This is in addition to the government subsidizing fire fighting activities (including purchase of fill), the security of the site, and possibly the rental of compacting equipment."
McKinney says her group has made further bids to recycle vehicle tyres stored at the dump, asking for a split of $3 from the $5 per tyre collected at the port of entry as a disposal fee. But there has been no official acknowledgement of these proposals.
As a partner (with Bahamas Waste) in the Green Systems mulching plant at the airport industrial park, Mckinney is also asking for an increase in the tariff on imported mulch and compost, and a requirement that hotels, restaurants and supermarkets have their food waste processed rather than simply discarded.
She is also calling for an ongoing public education campaign to help consumers understand what can be recycled and how. Service clubs should organise hazardous material collection and export drives, she says, and everyone should be lobbying for a waste-to-energy plant at the landfill.
Despite some recycling, there is still a large fraction of the waste stream that cannot be diverted from the landfill. In McKinney’s view, this material should be used to generate revenue from energy while freeing up space.
"By reducing significantly what goes into our landfill we will prolong its useful life and delay having to find a new site for future waste disposal,” she said. “And the funds generated from energy production will help to finance the overall plan."
Renew's recycling plant is just a piece of the puzzle that makes up integrated waste management, Mckinney said. "The Chamber of Commerce should be worried that each aspect of our waste stream is being given away incrementally to a foreign company that has not had any (transparent) due diligence.
"The Chamber should assess the waste management history of Renew Bahamas and its principals, as well as the viability of their business plan, with the help of international experts.
"By their own admission,” she continued, “Renew is a wholly owned and financed foreign entity, and the Chamber should question this award at a time when Bahamian waste companies have been offering viable, internationally engineered and investor-approved solutions that completely fulfill the requirements of the government."
Bottom line is that no government over the past quarter century has taken our solid waste and pollution problems seriously. And as a result they have multiplied in line with the resources that have been wasted.
What a sorry record.