MONTEGO BAY, St James — Early Tuesday morning Eugenie Powell-Gentles emerged from her house in Pitfour, St James, for her daily routine of watering her plants. But the thick blanket of smoke hanging over the community pushed the elderly woman back inside.
Her first thought, she told the Jamaica Observer, was “Is this Retirement again?”
She was on target. The smoke was emanating from the Retirement disposal site, which the authorities believe was deliberately set ablaze Sunday night.
Although the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA) and the Jamaica Fire Brigade were able to put the fire under control on Monday the smoke continued to spread across the surrounding communities, affecting thousands of people — the second time in a month.
“I could hardly breathe, and it bothers me because I have terrible sinusitis. This morning when I woke up it was awful, it was really bad — and we cannot continue with this,” Powell-Gentles lamented in-between bouts of heavy coughing.
She said that immediate action is needed by the Government to deal with the continuous fires at the disposal site as residents are concerned about the health implications of inhaling the “toxic smoke”.
“We, the citizens of Pitfour, are suffering from it and I don’t know what the authorities are going to do because a lot of people get sick because of sinus [infections] and other respiratory issues. I don’t know what is going to happen to us,” Powell-Gentles said.
When asked whether she has reported these concerns to Marlene Malahoo Forte, the Member of Parliament for St James West Central, Powell-Gentles said no.
“Look here, from my MP win I don’t see her again. I don’t know if she comes to the area when I am not here but I haven’t seen her. My councillor, Michael Troupe, who is very helpful to us, is here at all times. We spoke to him… not since last night though, but I know he is going to talk about this,” she said.
Powell-Gentles, who is also a retiree, further stated that the community comprises mostly elderly people who have underlying health concerns. It is against that background, she told the Observer, that she is reiterating her appeal for immediate intervention by the relevant authorities.
“I have been living here for close to 40 years and this is the worst we have ever seen. We are seniors now so what is going to happen to us? When we get sick there is nobody to refund us our doctor bills so we need the dump to be removed as soon as possible. This is terrible and disgusting,” said Powell-Gentles. “This is too much,” she added.
Taxi operator Wilton Walker is also concerned about the “harmful fumes” he and other residents are inhaling from the smoke.
“Mi go check pon a thing on the Internet weh show how dumps burn and mi a say this must dangerous. It a affect nuff people and dem haffi run weh gone. Every time the dump deh pon fire, people who have asthma and some other likkle illness haffi lef dem house go somewhere else,” Walker said.
He, too, is calling for the hasty relocation of the dump.
“The dump fi remove from here now. Mi feel like it a get out of hand now because sometimes — even five times for the year — we a have da problem ya. It too much, and something has to be done about it. We need to get to the bigger heads to see what they can do because we cannot do it for ourselves,” Walker told the Observer.
Living in the Retirement community means that Bjornlee Smith and his family are forced to take swift action to contain the smoke each time the dump is on fire.
“We have tried using containers with water, baking soda, fans — everything to try to contain the smoke. The authorities said the fire is under control but the thick blanket of smoke needs to be addressed,” Smith said.
He told the Observer that some residents have decided to stay home from work due to the smoke nuisance coming from the disposal site.
“Some [people] have called into work because it’s not feasible to walk to the taxi stand. A few were seen earlier going out, but they were in their masks,” he said on Tuesday.
Speaking on behalf of other residents, Smith said, “We’re filing a petition for the dump to be relocated.”
When the Observer contacted Malahoo Forte for a comment she said that the plan announced by the Government to relocate the disposal facility is still in the pipeline.
“The Government has taken the decision to close the site and relocate the waste management plant. That will take some time,” she said, adding that Local Government Minister Desmond McKenzie “can speak to the details as to where we are in the process”.
Malahoo Forte said that steps are being taken to address the smoke nuisance, which she acknowledged is affecting residents living near the disposal site. However, she maintained that until the site is relocated the problem will reoccur.
“It is truly unacceptable, and we know that nothing short of the permanent, long-term solution will ease the problem that happens from time to time,” said Malahoo Forte, who has been accused by some residents of failing to deal with the problem.
“It is my hope that the criminal elements who are periodically setting the dump on fire will be arrested and prosecuted because the harm to the people is too great for any gains they may have,” Malahoo Forte told the Observer.
Responding to her constituents’ accusations that she has been absent from their communities, Malahoo Forte said that she makes “representation” through the actions which are being taken to address the issues at the dump.
“I want my constituents to know that I continue to make representation on their behalf and that is why immediate action was taken to put the fire out. Steps are now being taken to address the smoke. The decision of the Government to relocate the dump is also part of my representation to bring a long-term solution to the problem,” said the MP.