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38 honoured for fighting fires at landfill

By Kim Boodram

THIRTY-EIGHT workers have been honoured by the Solid Waste Management Company (SWMCOL) for their dedication in putting out a dozen fires that led to the temporary closure of the Beetham landfill and stifled the capital city under a cloud of smoke earlier this month.

The company held a ceremony at the landfill last week Friday for its own employees who were involved in the operation and for those workers attached to contractors at the site.

SWMCOL said in a news release on Wednesday that the fires had presented an “unprecedented challenge” and those employees who worked to bring the situation under control did so “around the clock for five days”.

Those attached to SWMCOL have been rewarded with a certificate of thanks and a “nominal payment” by the company, while contract workers were presented with certificates.

It was not clear whether the latter were also awarded bonuses by the companies with whom they are employed.

George Elias, general manager of Sales, Marketing and Communications at SWMCOL, said that operations at the landfill are back to normal and the company has allowed salvagers, most of whom are based in the Beetham Gardens community opposite the landfill, to resume their activities.

However, all operations are taking place with an increased measure of safety awareness, he said.

Elias said the company maintains that the fires, which for a week left Port of Spain and environs under smoke, were maliciously set.

“SWMCOL does not incinerate waste at the landfill,” Elias said.

“It is important to remember that. Waste is buried at the landfill.”

Elias said attention is being paid to the locations where the most stubborn fires had occurred, as subterranean fires could be unpredictable and resurface.

“At this stage that is unlikely, but we are being cautious.”

Explaining the origin of smoke that may be seen coming from the site on a regular basis, Elias said some salvagers looking for scrap metal will sometimes burn large objects to get to their “prize”.

It is not uncommon for items like refrigerators to be taken to the periphery of the landfill and set on fire, to melt away the plastic parts and reveal the metal and copper beneath.

Some salvagers also spend whole days at the landfill and have areas where they cook meals.

The smoke that emanated from the Beetham landfill during those days two weeks ago was at one point deemed “toxic” by the Environmental Management Authority (EMA), and SWMCOL was ordered to shut down operations at the site until the fires could be put out.

The landfill remained closed for almost a week, while Port of Spain and environs were severely affected on most days, with businesses and schools being closed down.

At last week’s ceremony, SWMCOL chief executive officer Sharma Lalla opened the proceedings by “acknowledging the seriousness of the situation as well as the severity of the impact which the fires had on Port of Spain and environs”, SWMCOL said in the statement.  

He also admitted that more needed to be done to prevent similar problems in the future.

Chairperson Nalini Sooklal applauded the dedication and effort “shown by all” during the crisis. 

“Further to the ceremony, SWMCOL will be embarking on a number of consultations with key stakeholders in an effort to discuss plans to ameliorate and prevent future recurrence of fires on all of its landfill sites,” the company stated.

“In the immediate period, however, on-site safety and security is expected to remain on high alert.”

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