by Larry Smith
In case you hadn’t noticed, the Harrold Road dump exploded again last week, spewing billowing clouds of toxic fumes and black smoke into the clear skies over New Providence.
The government’s response was to send in the fire trucks and suggest that those affected by the pollution shut their windows and visit a clinic.
His job done, Environment Minister Ken Dorsett then jetted off to a regional conference at a Mexican resort.
Ironically, an official release on this meeting said it gave an opportunity to Ministers of Environment "to articulate to the world the need to embed the environment in all facets of sustainable development.”
Meanwhile, back in Nassau the dump continued to burn - not for the first time, and likely not for the last. In fact, the dump catches fire every other year in the dry season, releasing cancer-causing chemicals and particulate matter into the air. It has been doing this for decades.
The latest fire started in an area where used tyres are dumped. And coincidentally, there were simultaneous reports of a tyre fire at the Riverton City landfill in Jamaica. So we are not suggesting that this is something unique to the Bahamas.
In fact, here’s an excerpt from the Jamaica Gleaner about an earlier fire in 2012: "Mere months after scores of persons were left with breathing problems following a major fire at the National Solid Waste Management Authority's Corporate Area landfill at Riverton City, there are fears the country is just a whisker away from a similar episode.”
According to the Gleaner, "Air quality tests taken after the last fire showed a high degree of poisonous gas in the air. Residents of surrounding communities, particularly infants and the aged, often develop respiratory illnesses."
We don’t need air quality tests here, government officials said, but you can be sure that another dump fire in both the Bahamas and Jamaica is just a whisker away, as the Gleaner said. That newspaper must be psychic.
Some 15 years ago the Inter-American Development Bank financed a multi-million-dollar programme to build "state-of-the-art sanitary landfills" on New Providence and other key islands. At that time, we were producing more than a quarter of a million tons of garbage annually, with New Providence accounting for most of that total. Volume is estimated at well over 300,000 tons a year today.
But these landfills - especially the big one on Harrold Road - have never been operated properly, as can be seen from the periodic fires at most dumps around the country - which are a serious public health hazard. And the Harrold Road site is already nearing the end of its 20-year design life.
Since at least 2008, proposals have been made to both FNM and PLP administrations to remediate the New Providence landfill, to recycle what could be re-used, and to produce up to 20 megawatts of electricity from incinerating the remaining garbage in one way or another.
But no government has been able to give up control of the landfill - despite the fact that it is terribly managed to the detriment of all citizens and the environment in which we live.
The IDB funding in the late 1990s produced a huge bureaucracy called the Department of Environmental Health Services, which runs the dump. The lack of accountability of this department is almost criminal, yet we continue to fund a system that has clearly forgotten what it is supposed to do. For example, the current fire is burning around a waste facility installed years ago by Loftus Roker, that was never made operational.
According to one insider, "there have been many proposals for remediation of the landfill, but DEHS is a critical source of union votes, which results in political paralysis. Coupled with that is the greed of the private sector when it comes to long-term funding of such huge capital investments. The problem is self-evident - a wilful neglect of the public interest by the civil service, the government and apathetic voters themselves.”
In 2011 private sector proposals were submitted for management of the New Providence landfill and for residential garbage collection. But a pending general election led the Ingraham administration to defer this apparently difficult decision to the next administration.
The PLP - which won the May 2012 election - started out by slamming the FNM’s failure to aggressively pursue alternative energy.
"This failure has been particularly disastrous because over the past five years there were periods when 25 per cent of all of the country’s foreign earnings had to be used to pay for imported fuels. This is not only a major drain on the overall economy, but leaves the country extremely exposed to significant devastation,” the PLP said in its Charter for Governance.
A few months after the election, Environment Minister Ken Dorsett said the government was "working assiduously" to amend the 1956 Electricity Act, introduce a Renewable Energy Act, and create an independent sector regulator - reforms long recommended by InterAmerican Bank-funded consultants. He added that a waste-to-energy solution was being “aggressively pursued” for the New Providence landfill.
In fact, Dorsett made a stirring call to action on the renewables front: "In time we can become known as the 'islands in the sun' for our tourism business as well as for power generation," he said. "The Bahamas can and will become a world leader in alternative energy, creating hundreds of good-paying jobs and economic opportunities for Bahamians.”
At the end of 2012, the government appointed an energy task force to consider recommendations made by its favoured Malaysian investor, Genting, as well as other private sector proposals. The task force (headed by Renward Wells and Khaalis Rolle) reiterated the goal of the draft national energy policy, calling for 30 per cent of electricity to be generated from renewables.
In a curious development, tender documents for renewable power plants were released last May by the task force, but quickly withdrawn on the excuse that they had not been approved by cabinet.
Last summer, Dorsett said the government would soon enable consumers to generate their own power from renewables and feed any excess into the BEC grid. He added that efforts would be made to remediate the Harrold Road landfill, set up a recycling system and implement a waste-to-energy plant.
"The ultimate objective is to transform the landfill into a green park, where there is a solar field, and waste-to-energy plant,” Dorsett said. “And that requires the removal of the landfill.”
Then the government decided it needed a private sector partner for BEC to help reform the energy sector and “create efficiencies". In retrospect, this is probably what Genting had recommended in its still-secret report a year earlier. Back then, a Genting spokesman said the sector had to be reformed before new initiatives were considered.
Consultants were hired to help select these private sector partners for BEC, but the process is already months behind schedule and little information has been made public. In fact, Deputy Prime Minister Philip Davis recently made noises to the effect that “quite possibly, nothing will happen” with BEC, and the government will continue with business as usual.
Then, last November, Dorsett unexpectedly announced that the government was finalising the terms of a five-year contract with an unknown foreign company to conduct landfill remediation and recycling, as well as study the New Providence waste stream. This required the indefinite postponement of a waste-to-energy plant, as well as the snubbing of a coalition of Bahamian waste management firms that had also been seeking to remediate the dump.
No details were given on the principals of this company (Renew Bahamas), or the terms of the contract. But Dorsett said the government would maintain control of the dump and split revenue from the sale of recyclables.
According to the Registry, Renew Bahamas was formed right after the election - in July 2012 by Davis & Co, the deputy prime minister’s law firm. The company’s registered office is currently listed as McKinney, Turner & Co.
Sixty per cent of the shares are owned by non-Bahamians and only two directors are listed - Een Colebrooke, a Bahamian insurance specialist who once worked for Kerzner International; and Gehard Beukes, a South African investment manager at London-based Aubaine Capital Ltd.
Aubaine is one of the principal owners of the British Colonial Hilton property in downtown Nassau. Aubaine is also an investor in ITI Energy, a British company which manufactures a patented, advanced gasifier system which produces a synthetic gas from garbage that can be used to generate electricity.
It seems that Renew Bahamas was able to slip into a contract at the landfill completely under the radar, and unbeknownst to other foreign and Bahamian firms vying for waste-to-energy and landfill remediation contracts.
In January of this year, Dorsett said energy sector reform was “imperative" to attracting new investment to the country. But now, everything else was secondary to “getting our energy infrastructure to be ready to receive renewable energy without destabilizing the electric grids.”
And, of course, the government was still trying to advance regulatory reforms "to facilitate the introduction of independent power producers to provide renewable energy.” This is despite the fact that draft legislation had been left on the table by the previous administration two years ago.
The long and short of it is that since the general election we have heard multiple conflicting statements from various government spokesmen with no clear articulation of the way forward, much less the announcement of any concrete measures. And it was much the same with the previous administration.
From the looks of things, implementation of large-scale alternative energy production has been pushed into the unforeseeable future - meaning we will continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of scarce foreign exchange every year on fossil fuel imports.
Meanwhile, the Harrold Road landfill (like those on other islands) continues to burn periodically and remains an environmental disaster. And there has been no indication that the owners of Renew Bahamas are in a position to do anything at the moment.
So - close ya windows and visit the clinic. This is the Bahamas and, as the DPM perspicaciously noted, “quite possibly, nothing will be done."