PHILIPSBURG–Authorities have not yet been able to measure and determine the real health effects of emissions from the dump with any degree of certainty, Minister of Public Housing, Environment, Spatial Development and Infrastructure VROMI Christopher Wever told Members of Parliament (MPs) during an urgent public plenary session of parliament on Friday.
The recently-sworn-in minister was at the time speaking on the agenda point “The results of a survey that had been conducted regarding fumes emanating from the dump and the health hazard this carries.”
Wever made clear that when there are no open fires, there are no real health risks for the population at large from emissions from the dump.
The issue of the fumes or the emissions from the dump has everything to do with occurrences of fires on the landfill and the smoke the fires emit. He said any kind of fire with emissions causes hazardous effects to human health if the emissions are inhaled or ingested over time.
The extent of the hazard to health is a factor of the type of emissions and the duration or the extent of the exposure to the emissions, but also on the state of health of the persons who are inhaling the emissions. Persons with certain health conditions will suffer more from exposure to emissions than persons without any pre-existing health conditions.
Fires cause the dump material to burn, which causes emissions, and the type(s) of emissions depend on the type(s) of materials that is/are burning. The waste at the landfill is mostly household waste, but no real separation takes place with the exception of some materials like tires, some metals and some wood pallets, so therefore the exact content of the waste at the landfill is not very well known.
Other materials are also deposited at the landfill, such as some paints and batteries, and since Hurricane Irma there has been a wider array of debris deposited, especially at the so-called Irma landfill. Some materials are very hazardous, while some are less hazardous in terms of the emissions they cause when they burn.
Wever said the issue of fumes or emissions emanating from the dump is a topic that VROMI has been addressing and was also an important topic in a court case against government. The claim put forward is that emissions from the dump fires are hazardous to the health of the population at large.
Wever said this claim is very difficult to contest in the event there is a fire on the landfill. “However, we have not yet been able to measure and determine the real health effects with any degree of certainty,” he said.
“To begin with, within the context of trying to assess the extent and quality of the emissions from the landfill for persons working directly on the landfill, the World Bank engaged a consulting team to measure the emissions directly on the landfill, which was done between the 28th through the 30th of August 2018.”
The report on the analysis of these measurements was delivered in mid-December 2018. The purpose was to understand the possible consequences for the health of workers, and to determine the types of protective gear the workers on the landfill would have to use when working on the landfill, be it with respect to management or fire suppression activities.
Wever said these measurements can be equated to measuring the quality of the fumes directly at the end of a car’s exhaust muffler, where obviously the measurements will show more severe results than if one would measure the effects of these fumes at a distance of about 10 metres from the car.
He stressed that the quality of the emissions is different depending on the location on the landfill, and the measured qualities are such that they do require that workers wear protective gear.
“This is especially the case when there are open fires apparent or when fumes are emitting from the smouldering below the surface of the landfill. However, the results of the World Bank air quality testing and analysis cannot say much about the health effects of the dump fire emissions at locations more remote from the dump.”
In an effort to better understand these possible health effects, VROMI, with the assistance of the Dutch Government through Environmental Incident Service MOD of the independent Dutch National Institution for Public Health and Environment RIVM, had air quality measurements and analyses conducted in more remote locations within the wind direction from the dump. These measurements were conducted between January 24 and February 6, and the analysis was completed in May.
“Unfortunately, these measurements could not be conducted when there was an open fire, because there were no open fires during the three-week mission of the team of the RIVM. As a result, the RIVM could not draw any conclusions about the possible health effects on the population away from the dump in the event of a fire.”
“However, it is important to note that the report concludes that when there is no open fire at the dump, the health risks for the population away from the dump, from the fumes or emissions from the dump, are relatively minimal or non-existent. The effects of the fumes from, for example, tour buses or the severely high density of vehicles on the roads of St. Maarten may be of more concern from a public health perspective in terms of harmful emissions,” said the minister.
Wever said that while the question of the health effects from open fire emissions remains open, it is logistically impractical to try to plan to take measurements during an open fire.
“As a result, we are in discussion with the Dutch Government to assist St. Maarten in providing the equipment and specialised training to the Fire Department, to take air quality samples in the unforeseen event of future open fires. These samples can then be sent to the Netherlands lab for testing, to determine the potential health effects for the population in the event of open fires on the dump.”
The minister said it is important that the dump is managed in such a manner that the incidence of open fires is avoided, or at least well managed to reduce these to very rare and very short incidents.
He said good security and good and consistent coverage of garbage is of utmost importance to prevent or adequately respond to fires. Work also has to continue to improve the management of the dump.
“It is important to secure the necessary heavy equipment for a proper management, and to establish the temporary debris separation and removal (TDSR) and a permanent waste separation and materials recovery facility, to reduce and better control the materials that are being dumped. In this regard, recycling initiatives are also important.
“Furthermore, it is important to also deal with the underground fires or smouldering of the garbage through suppression. The plans for this are currently being worked on. In this respect, we also need to work on the plans for the re-profiling of the dump, towards the proper capping and closure of the dump, to prevent the filtration of oxygen to the smouldering fires that can stimulate the fires to continue.”
It is also important to take a holistic approach to the management and disposal of garbage, which involves a long-term approach that can possibly involve a waste-to-energy facility, and other complementary actions such as the establishment of a waste authority and implementing a waste levy, to cover some of the cost involved with waste management.
“However, it is important to acknowledge the improvements that have been put in place by VROMI thus far, with very little resources, albeit with many faults in this process and the learning curve involved. We need to continue on the track of improvement and to recognise the importance of good garbage management and the cost that is associated with this.”
Without adequate resources, especially money, but also equipment, organisation and expertise, the problems with the management of the dump will persist. So, while we work on the long-term solutions, it is important to take care of the here-and-now with due urgency, Wever noted.