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Port of Spain under siege

By Raoul Pantin

I could easily believe the Express lead story last Thursday that quoted Port of Spain deputy mayor Keron Valentine as saying that hundreds could have died, or otherwise been seriously negatively affected, by the heavy pollution that blanketed the city on Tuesday.
In fact, early last Wednesday morning I headed into Port of Spain to conduct some business and for a moment I thought I had been transported to another country, say a foggy morning in London. En route to the city, a thick haze covered the Queen’s Park Savannah so that it was barely visible and that smog was worse in downtown Port of Spain, all caused by the burning landfill in the Beetham area.
In fact, I saw several people, men and women, wearing cloth masks ovwe their mouths and noses and since I wasn’t wearing one, I wondered what effect this smog could have on me. It was only later on when I read a statement by the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) that I realised how serious the impact could have been.
The EMA actually said people should seek medical attention if they had breathing or other respiratory problems as a result of the smog.
So bad was it that some 16 schools, including St Joseph’s Convent, sent their pupils home rather than have them breathing that polluted air.
You can just imagine the great inconvenience for parents who had seen their children off to school that morning and had not expected them to return home until mid-afternoon. I actually heard one young mother complain bitterly that her child had to travel to school from far-flung Blanchisseuse and not only was it inconvenient for the school to close earlier than usual, but it was also a burdensome expense.
I also took due note of a comment on the social medium Facebook by one Carol Ann Frontin de Peaze who wrote: “Non-smokers and pollution haters get your face covered. This is serious toxic air 12 times over the allowed limit” (a later EMA statement said it was 13 times over the limit).
One Sherma Alexander also commented: “This is a total shame and disgrace and very much appalling and disgusting, to say the least,” And Lisa Ahee described it as “totally ridiculous.”
My own comment that morning was: “This is totally unacceptable. This is our capital city. Not a dumping ground!”
Later that same day I read a statement by the EMA which promised to deal with the problem by removing the landfill from the Beetham area and my comment on that was, “I won’t be holding my breath until it happens.”
If I’m not mistaken, promises have been made in the past to remove that landfill but it has remained where it is and every now and again, whether as a result of fires deliberately set as a form of protest or simply a natural process, the city has been affected by this unhealthy smog.
But last Wednesday was the worse I had ever seen or experienced. And the EMA statement about people seeking medical attention if they found themselves with breathing problems as a result of the smog interested me a great deal because as a recent nonsmoker (today marks my 152nd cigarette-free day), I was worried that the very lung problems I was trying to avoid could develop because at one point on Park Street I began to gasp for air.
It was only briefly but I made up my mind then that if I did have to seek medical attention and found out that my health had been adversely affected by this blast of pollution, I was going to take legal action against the EMA in particular and the Government in general.
It also struck me that Trinidad on the whole was now under serious attack by pollutants. Whole chunks of south Trinidad had been negatively affected by oil spills which threatened people’s health and livelihood. On the television news on Sunday night there were reports of new oil spills in south Trinidad. And now Port of Spain was under attack from its own man-made pollution.
By mid-afternoon last Wednesday I noticed that the smog had been considerably cleared up so I assumed the EMA, or whoever, had gone to work on removing a very real threat to people’s health in the capital city. I can only hope, no doubt along with thousands of citizens, that this problem is not repeated.
I also hoped that the authorities would take due note of an article written by British High Commissioner Arthur Snell, headlined “Down in the dumps’’, who related the London experience with “a dry smoky fog” that descended on London one day in 1952.
He wrote: “The fog brought road, air and rail transport to a virtual standstill. The smoke-like pollution was so bad, it led to at least 4,000 deaths and was reported to have choked cows to death in the fields.”
I don’t think we should simply sit back and await a similar experience before we do something drastic about that landfill on the edge of the capital city.
As Mr Snell wrote: “Could this great smog be the spur to take action, to create a recycling industry and to develop cutting edge waste management? There is nothing to stop this country, with its engineering and energy expertise, from becoming a world leader in the field.”
But oh yes, there is, Mr Snell. It’s known as “inertia”, at which we are also very experienced. It was obviously an error to have such a landfill placed in close proximity to the capital city to start with. Last week’s experience should really serve as an incentive to have this landfill removed from its present location, which has, in fact, been promised in the not-too-recent past.
I sincerely hope we are not going to sit back and wait for actual disaster or death, or both, to descend on us before we take preventive action. But, mark my word, it won’t surprise me if we actually do very little but talk about the problem—until it demonstrates its real capacity for disaster!
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