by Larry Smith
A stunning photo appeared on Facebook over the weekend. Taken from the stern of a small boat speeding away from New Providence, it showed the island entirely shrouded in toxic smoke from the exploding dump.
Other photos taken at night showed a still-raging dump fire when politicians and others were claiming the crisis was all but over.
And there were images of new bush fires burning unimpeded around the dump site, even as the government said it was calling in foreign experts to deal with the problem.
The path to the present crisis at the dump (it is one of many that have occurred over the years), began in the late 1970s, when the government phased out the Big Pond dump on Blue Hill Road and carved out a more remote site in the pine barren off Harrold Road.
A homeowner who has lived near the Harrold Road site since 1976 recalls how the surrounding area developed into a dense residential suburb over the years. Some of these communities had to be evacuated wholesale when the current fire began earlier this month. And it is still not known when they will be able to return.
“At the time, I wrote to the newspapers suggesting it was absurd to build government housing next to the landfill,” the resident told me. ”Sometime in the early 80s the fires began. I certainly observed them and suffered through many smokey days and nights, although the area involved was not very big at first.”
In those early days, equipment was installed (at great cost) to separate metal and shred everything else. But the machinery quickly broke down and was never fixed. The material that was supposed to go through the shredder simply went into the dump.
Then came the effort to create a proper sanitary landfill. In the 1990s, the Canadian engineering firm, Stantec (which also guided the recent redevelopment of Nassau’s airport), was hired to study the island’s solid waste problem.
Stantec designed a modern, fully-engineered landfill for New Providence and 10 Family Islands. And in 1999 the Inter-American Development Bank provided $23 million in financing while the government kicked in another $10 million.
At Harrold Road, the money paid for a 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 specification. A leachate control system was included, and Stantec left a comprehensive blueprint on how to manage the landfill, as well as plans for landfills on other islands.
“I recall the liners being installed and the basin being created,” the resident told me, “and feeling that at last something was happening. For a few years there were no serious fires. But the landfill soon degenerated into an ordinary dump, with spurts of spending on fill to cover followed by long periods of exposed garbage. Then came the large fires. By my calculation, more than a million dollars was spent following one major fire.
“The smoke bothered me mostly when the wind was shifting or when there was none at all. I always had a perverse sense of satisfaction when it blew over by Sanford Drive. And more recently Cable Beach. I figured this could not last as many VIPs were obviously being affected by the smoke. I eventually realized that nobody cared.”
As well as failing to implement and sustain the IDB’s fully funded plans, successive Bahamian governments have largely ignored numerous integrated waste management proposals from Bahamian and foreign experts over the past 20-odd years.
An official request for waste-to-energy proposals was issued as early as 2008, but neither the Ingraham nor Christie administrations would engage seriously with any of the several investor groups who responded.
So every year like clockwork the Harrold Road landfill erupts in enormous toxic conflagrations that pose serious threats to public health, are a disaster for tourism, and absorb huge amounts of public funds.
During these times, poisonous fumes blanket the Cable Beach resort district and infiltrate the homes of Bahamians of all backgrounds, while the government scrambles for resources to extinguish the flames 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 set up a recycling operation at the dump.
The details of this government contract over a public asset were never revealed, despite numerous demands. Renew built a plant to sort and pack cardboard, plastics and metals for export to recyclers, but it was not held responsible for fixing the landfill.
Last year, this operation came to a grinding halt when Renew walked off the job after the government ignored its requests for more money. The dump is still - as it has always been - under the control of the Department of Environmental Health - a misnomer if ever there was one.
In the wake of the latest fires there has been lots of uninformed comment about the need for recycling as the ultimate solution, but the facts are that our recyclate volumes are so small, our geography so fragmented and our culture so indifferent that the investment and effort required to make a significant dent is simply not viable.
Limited recycling does take place, but just about everything has to be shipped out, except for the bottles produced by the two local breweries and green waste that is shredded into mulch. For example, both Bahamas Waste and Renew Bahamas had been collecting and shipping cardboard to China and India, but those operations have ceased.
Hundreds of thousands of car tyres are discarded every year on New Providence and disposal fees are paid to government at the port of entry. Under the previous administration, a Bahamian group made a bid to shred the tyres into a crumb for use in road paving and was offered 25 cents per unit, which proved uneconomical.
Tyres are segregated on a 10-acre site at the dump, where they have been consumed by fire several times over the years. The government has not responded to more recent offers to shred the growing pile of tyres (using equipment that is already here), but Environment Minister Ken Dorsett talked recently about shipping them out of the country.
People like me have written reams about these issues. Others have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars and tons of man-hours developing proposals to fix the problems. But nothing ever happens.
And this is despite the fact that ordinary Bahamians have to flee their homes. Not to mention the fact that the dump is an environmental disaster of major proportions that affects our number one industry as well as every Bahamian’s health and quality of life.
Perhaps there is a silver lining to the fact that the current fire has started only weeks before a critical general election. As the prime minister recently said: There is now “a compelling urgency” to deal with the problem.
Renew Bahamas, which had a crony contract for recycling at the dump, went out of business. The solution is to recycle where feasible and divert the remaining waste to produce electricity, which can help fund landfill remediation and ongoing management.
But unfortunately, no government has ever pursued this, despite numerous proposals over the past decade from both local and foreign groups.