The landfill on Pond Island. (File photo)
PHILIPSBURG–Almost one year after St. Maarten residents Barbara Cannegieter and Camiel Koster, and law firm Bergman Zwanikken Snow Essed (BZSE) filed an injunction against Country St. Maarten, the Ministry of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure VROMI, and former landfill management company Robelto and Son B.V., the Court is set to render a verdict in this case on Friday, July 27.
In the injunction, which was later joined by the Prosecutor’s Office, plaintiffs request that the Court order government and the former garbage dump operator to take effective measures to prevent the emission of smoke, gases and stench at the landfill, and to conduct measurements of the toxic fumes and make these public.
In case of non-compliance, the judge is requested to attach to the verdict daily penalties of US $5,000, with a maximum of $1 million.
By means of monthly updates, Country St. Maarten has kept litigants and the Court abreast of developments at the landfill on Pond Island. In the meantime, National Institute for Public Health and the Environment RIVM in the Netherlands has submitted a report about the dump fires.
During Friday’s last round of pleadings, plaintiffs agreed that much has happened since the first round of pleadings were presented to the Court on September 27, 2018.
There have been quite a few investigations, talks and consultations, and tendering procedures. Country St. Maarten took over management at the dump and reduced nuisance by closing the dump during night-time hours and by ensuring there is sufficient “fill” to decrease the number of fires.
At the same time, this is also litigants’ most important complaint: “The dump is still burning, and continuously. No blazing fires like at the start of this injunction, but there is a smouldering core which, day in and day out, is emitting gasses, smoke and stench,” attorney Koster said in stating that Country St. Maarten has taken action but “is not yet finished by far.”
He stated that Country St. Maarten should be kept under pressure until the finalisation of the Fire Suppression Project. “In St. Maarten the government always needs to be put under pressure to get things done,” he said, adding that VROMI Minister Miklos Giterson’s days are numbered.
“Rumours that government is falling are always there in St. Maarten and history has proven that those rumours are often true. Recently, there was a persistent rumour about ‘the government in Cupecoy’ working on the next change of power,” Koster said.
To ensure government’s commitment to the Fire Suppression Plan, which is part of the larger St. Maarten Recovery and Resilience Plan, the judge suggested that parties close a settlement agreement (“vaststellingsovereenkomst”) pertaining to the Fire Suppression Plan. The plan should be approved by the Council of Ministers and should include an end date, the Judge stated.
In government’s eyes, the dump is no longer causing unlawful nuisance and the RIVM report did not uncover any harmful substances emanating from the landfill.
The deadline for the tendering process for the project was initially set for June 18, 2019, but has been extended until August 20, 2019. According to litigants, the Fire Suppression Plan should be finalised before December 31, 2019.
Plaintiffs contested Country St. Maarten’s position that there is no nuisance when there are no blazing fires and presented several statements of residents who live in the vicinity of the landfill.
“The smoke from the landfill still blows into and outside our home every single day. We struggle to keep our children indoors and it has become extremely stressful to live in these conditions, both mentally and physically. We still smell and breathe in the toxic fumes from the dump on a daily basis,” one resident was quoted as saying.
Koster wondered why a resort in Maho could be rebuilt within one year and St. Maarten fails to extinguish the dump in 12 months. “You cannot blame the World Bank for everything,” he said.
He claimed that Country St. Maarten is in violation of its constitutional obligation to promote public health and liveability in St. Maarten. “Willingly and knowingly, St. Maarten accepts that the dump is being managed without the necessary permits. The government is acting illegally in accepting stench, smoke and gasses. That St. Maarten took action by which the number of blazing fires has been reduced is in itself good news, but it is not enough.”
Koster said government wants to limit the scope of the injunction to the limitation of nuisance, but litigants seek the prevention of nuisance, he stated.
Country St. Maarten, represented in this case by attorneys Aernout Kraaijeveld and Caroline van Hees of Gibson and Associates, pleaded with the Court to reject plaintiffs’ demand, including any penalties.
They maintained that government has done everything to prevent the emission of odour, smoke and gasses and that it has been successful, as there are no more blazes. Therefore, in its present form the landfill is no longer a danger to public health, they said.
The government lawyers said that claimants are misreading the RIVM report, as it says no toxic substances were measured. This led Van Hees to state that it seems that possible health complaints by residents, such as nose and throat irritation, may very well be due to people’s perception that the odour nuisance must be harmful to health.
She said that all the plans are on schedule, including the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment Plan, and that public consultations have been held. However, there are so many factors involved, including the World Bank’s “safeguard instruments”, that delays cannot be excluded. However, this does not mean that the entire project would be at risk or would no longer go ahead, the lawyer insisted.
“Yes, they’re working, but the problem has not been solved and the dump is still a nuisance,” Cannegieter said at the end of the hearing. She called for a judgment until the problem has been solved completely.
“The situation with the fires has improved, but they’re still not out; maybe less, but there is still smoke and smell,” she said. Showing a photo she had taken early Friday morning, Cannegieter said, “I see it [landfill smoke – Ed.] many mornings like that and I smell it before I see it. It gives me headaches and problems with inhalation.”
Source: The Daily Herald https://www.thedailyherald.sx/islands/88890-verdict-in-dump-case-expected-on-july-26