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Smoke signals we need to heed

 The Beetham landfill fires which smoked out Port of Spain this week demonstrated that the authorities are ill-prepared to handle disasters.

Schools were closed, businesses shut early, and the citizens fled as mysterious fires, which started on Sunday, continued to burn three days later, casting a thick pall of smoke over the capital city when the wind shifted. Deputy Mayor of Port of Spain Keron Valentine was perhaps being somewhat alarmist when he said there could have been “mass casualties”, but his hyperbole was in the context of what didn’t happen. Obviously, though, fires are unpredictable and, given that these fires started in a landfill, toxic fumes were a real possibility had the wrong kind of substances been ignited.

In all this, the relevant agencies all appeared to be scrambling after the fact to deal with the situation. The Health Ministry, the Trinidad and Tobago Solid Waste Management Company Ltd (Swmcol) and the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) apparently didn’t treat the matter seriously at first. Thus, it wasn’t until Wednesday that the ministry issued an advisory warning people the smoke might pose a danger. The EMA conducted air quality tests only on Tuesday and ordered the landfill shut down the following day. By Tuesday, Swmcol had issued a release saying only two of the 12 fires were still burning, but the company was unable to say when the remaining fires would be extinguished.

All in all, therefore, it seemed the lack of casualties and other serious consequences was due as much to luck as to the action taken by these various agencies. But, as demonstrated over past weeks by the south-west coast oil spills, it seems there are no emergency protocols in place to deal with such situations. If there were, the responsible organisations would have had clear guidelines to follow. And, as with the oil spills, landfill fires, even if not predictable, are an expected hazard for which protocols should exist.

Additionally, because the issue of clear and immediate danger took precedence, there has apparently been no initiative to investigate how the fires started. Swmcol has stated they were deliberately set, and suspicion has naturally been directed at Beetham residents who, again, disrupted traffic last Sunday after a man who had been attacking police officers was shot in the leg. Finding the culprits, however, may prove an impossible task.

Even so, the security aspect cannot be ignored. The vulnerability of the landfill now provides another avenue for Beetham residents to hold other citizens to ransom when they have a grievance. Thus, while this major smog problem has re-started the decade-old discussion about moving the landfill, new emergency and security protocols must be put in place in short order.

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