Prosecutors not aiming for short-term success in investigation of toxic dump | THE DAILY HERALD

~Fear repeat of Turkey disaster~

By John van Kerkhof

POND ISLAND–The Prosecutor’s Office informed the Government of St. Maarten in April that it had started an investigation into the situation at the landfill. In a public statement issued August 8, Prosecutors said they had received several complaints over the past year regarding illegal practices taking place at the dump.

Prosecutors received signals earlier this year that crimes were committed involving arson. The environment and public health are affected by the pollution of water, soil and air. Furthermore, subversive activities allegedly are taking place within government, such as fraud and corruption, and the import of waste from abroad.

“These signals we are going to investigate, and we are going to collect evidence,” Chief Prosecutor Jeroen Steenbrink said.

This broad-range and complex investigation will take quite some time and, therefore, the first suspects will not appear before a judge any time soon. “We are in for the long haul,” Steenbrink said.

Problems with the processing of waste, dump fires, the emission of toxic smoke and pollution of soil and water at the landfill on Pond Island and its surroundings, including Great Salt Pond, are no recent phenomena.

“The dump is a big social issue and has been neglected for 30 years,” Steenbrink said. “As mentioned, we received signals of diverse crimes related to the dump. We want to handle this thoroughly, so that the system of waste processing improves fundamentally and public health and the environment with it. We are not going for short-term success, but want sustainable results of our approach to crime at the dump.”

This is not the first time the Prosecutor’s Office has taken the dump under investigation. “Investigations have been undertaken in the past, but these have never led to criminal charges,” he said.

The smoke from the dump constantly towering over Philipsburg and its environs is “toxic,” said new Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure VROMI Minister Miklos Giterson. “I consider it a giant monster,” he said at his first Council of Ministers press briefing on January 17 in expressing his concern about the fumes residents and visitors are breathing in.

The dump is one of the country’s “biggest” problems and one he plans to tackle as soon as possible along with climate change and environmental awareness, Giterson said seven months ago. These statements triggered a response by the Prosecutor’s Office, which decided to take its social responsibility and draw a line.

“We view the current situation at the dump as a crime, where as a result the health of residents in the community and our environment is being affected. This is unacceptable,” the Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement earlier this month.

“The Prosecutor’s Office draws a line and says, ‘Until here and no further,’ and gives a signal to the government to do something about it, although this, of course, remains the responsibility of politicians, because the Prosecutor’s Office does not operate politically,” Steenbrink said.

According to the Prosecutor’s Office, the dump is one of the island’s biggest social problems. Not only are residents hindered by smoke and gases, but the situation at the dump may lead to an environmental catastrophe, not unlike the one which occurred April 1993 on a garbage dump near Istanbul, Turkey. A methane-gas explosion caused a landslide during which 10 homes were buried in a nearby slum and 39 people died.

Two years before the disaster, a committee of experts reported to the municipality about lack of security at the refuse dump and warned of the danger of explosion. Nevertheless, the government did nothing with the report and let the unsafe situation persist.
“This case is a real spectre. Something similar could also happen here,” Steenbrink said.
So far, St. Maarten residents have filed complaints with the Prosecutor’s Office and the police pertaining to smoke and a foul smell emitting from the dump.

Two residents and law office Bergman, Zwanikken, Snow, Essed (BZSE) filed a petition on Friday for an injunction against Country St. Maarten, VROMI and current management company of the landfill Robelto and Son B.V. in which they called on government and the dump operator to take effective measures to prevent the emission of smoke, gases and stench at the landfill within three months following a Court ruling.

They also request that the Court order government to have an official institution such as the Netherlands Institute for Public Health and the Environment RIVM in Bilthoven, the Netherlands, conduct measurements of the toxic fumes.

“We view the current situation at the dump as a crime, where as a result the health of residents in the community and our environment is being affected. This is unacceptable,” the Prosecutor’s Office said.

“The dump has grown into a big problem and has been neglected for 30 years, and the problems are only becoming bigger and bigger. Thus far, successive governments have been talking about the dump and have made plans, but none of these plans have materialized. At this moment the mountain of garbage is 35 metres high. Therefore, we will start investigating by following certain waste streams,” the Chief Prosecutor explained.

The pile of waste on Pond Island consists not only of household garbage, but also of car wrecks, chemical waste, appliances, oil, car batteries, et cetera.

Waste is also imported from abroad. “Waste is being brought in from French St. Martin, because the collection of waste in Dutch St. Maarten is free of charge, whereas waste in French St. Martin is collected against a fee. We already have too much garbage here, but still waste is also being imported from St. Barths and other islands and cruise ships also discard waste here,” Steenbrink said in underlining the importance of mapping the different waste streams.

Besides analysing waste streams, the investigations also include measurements, assessments of legal roles and responsibilities, and the enforcement of criminal law by prosecuting relevant parties.

The Prosecutor’s Office is combining its efforts with the Police Force of St. Maarten, the Fire Department, the Inspectorates of the Ministries of VROMI and Public Health, Social Development and Labour VSA, and various stakeholders such as St. Maarten Nature Foundation, St. Maarten Hospitality and Trade Association (SHTA), St. Maarten Pride and others.

“The Prosecutor’s Office is not doing this investigation alone. This approach maximises the influence for change. By doing this we hope to contribute to a sustainable future for the dump so that human rights are respected,” the Prosecutor’s Office said.

The Chief Prosecutor underlines that the problems at the dump may be difficult to solve but that certain measures can be taken quite easily. “Take, for instance, basic security measures to control access to the dump, or a basic fire-suppression system to prevent fires from occurring. Such measures have still not been enforced.”

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Source: The Daily Herald