Monday, May 25, 2020

Wit’s end

Once again we are in an unwelcome, yet familiar, place.

When we saw smoke coming from the New Providence Landfill on Saturday afternoon, we feared we were about to face a repeat of last March, when a fire burned for nearly a month, forcing area residents out of their homes and schools and businesses to close.

While the fire did not have as great an impact as the one last year, it disrupted life for many who, over the course of a couple days, were subjected to the smoke from the site.

The nearby Baha Mar resort was blanketed by the smoke on Monday; it was barely visible in the haze.

The Baha Mar heads of agreement called for the landfill issues to be resolved by the end of 2017.

The recent blaze was evidence that, that deadline has not been met.

A government that has benefited largely from the people’s patience and goodwill has suddenly faced angst, frustration and disapproval from some Bahamians and other residents of the island who believe the Minnis administration has not acted fast enough to solve the problems plaguing the dump site.

The fire that erupted at the landfill last March came smack in the middle of campaign season, further signaling the end of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) government.

As the 2017 fire raged, Free National Movement Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis showed up in nearby Jubilee Gardens in red, promising to fix the problem.

The party’s Tall Pines candidate (and now MP) Don Saunders wore a red FNM hat.

PM Minnis was not at the scene of this latest fire — or if he was, there was no call to the media to highlight his visit.

Last year, as upset residents moved out of their homes to escape the toxic smoke, then Prime Minister Perry Christie assured that the government would move swiftly to address, once and for all, longstanding issues at the landfill.

Christie spoke of a “compelling urgency” to find solutions. But the Bahamian people had a compelling urgency to see him gone.

They had long accepted that he and his ministers were clueless to solve our most pressing problems, including preventing landfill fires.

The need to address problems at the landfill has existed for a long time.

In 1999, the Inter-American Development Bank and the government of The Bahamas signed an agreement. It provided for $23.5 million from the bank and $10 million from the government for the Solid Waste Management Programme to be executed by the Department of Environmental Health.

The loan included priority investments of $21 million for disposal facilities on New Providence and 10 of the Family Islands, and $600,000 for an environmental health eduction and awareness program.

Still, there was no evidence that we, as a country, made substantial progress in dealing properly with our waste management issues.

As a result, the people have suffered significantly.

Last June, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) concluded that the fire in March was an acute health risk, and the landfill itself is an “urgent public health hazard”.

After that fire started, Minnis accepted that the former FNM administration, of which he was a part, had to share in the blame for the problems at the landfill.

“… Certain funding would’ve been not only for New Providence, but would’ve been to tackle the entire Family Islands, in terms of dealing with how to deal with garbage collection,” Minnis said.

“I would be the first to admit that I am not happy with how it was dealt with. I can admit that, and we still have the issues, so we have to deal with it appropriately and have more accountability moving forward.

“I mean both (governments). The problem is still not resolved.”

Sidney Collie, who at the time was chairman of the Free National Movement, said the Progressive Liberal Party government was inept and had no solution for the landfill problems.

“We all know that the request for proposal to waste management firms, which they repeatedly talked about, won’t fix today’s landfill blaze,” Collie said.

“We know their big landfill plans outline modern engineering and waste management practices, but these ‘plans’ have done nothing to prevent today’s fire.”

But then Environment Minister Kenred Dorsett said the FNM had no moral authority to speak on the progress being made at the landfill.

“They were our immediate predecessors in government, and had they made any attempt to bring remediation and operational efficiencies to the landfill, the country would be further along in this effort,” Dorsett said.

The issue of persistent fires at the landfill featured prominently in last year’s election campaigns.

Now, nine months in, many Bahamians believe it is unacceptable that no significant movement has been announced by the Minnis administration to solve the landfill issues.

They believe it is unacceptable that another fire has taken place.

They endured fires under the Christie administration, and they have started to endure the same under the Minnis administration.

For many, it is simply a case of déjà vu.

‘Solution on the way’

In August, Prime Minister Minnis said the government was concerned about the impact the landfill is having on the quality of life for the Bahamian people.

Minnis noted that the landfill is among the national issues that “compromise the quality of life in The Bahamas”.

The prime minister pledged that resolving this challenge is “a priority issue” for his government.

Minnis also addressed the matter in his national address on Monday night.

He explained that, subsequent to an unsuccessful tender process by the previous government, his government released a press statement last June, outlining the short and long-term goals of the government to address the challenges and remediate the landfill problem.

“One of the short-term goals of the government was to issue a new RFP (request for proposals) for the management of the entire site,” the prime minister said.   

“In November 2017, we published requests for proposals in the local newspapers. A total of 18 companies responded. These documents are being reviewed by the selection committee recommended by the Cabinet of The Bahamas.

“A shortlist of potential investors is currently being prepared. The proposals will then be evaluated by the selection committee. A preferred bidder will be selected by May of this year.

“Once the government is informed of the results, we will report which firm the government has selected to enter into an agreement to manage, deconstruct and operate the New Providence Sanitary Landfill.”

But for people who have long been waiting to hear of a real plan to fix the landfill issue, especially those affected once again last weekend, nine months has been a long time for the Minnis administration to get it together.

Although this is a complex legacy issue, many people are not willing to give the Minnis administration much more time to get it resolved.

Some even took to social media calling for the resignation of Environment Minister Romauld Ferreira.

On Monday, Ferreira declared that The Bahamas is closer than it has ever been to resolving the long-standing issue of fires at the New Providence Landfill.

“I understand the frustration. It has been a long time coming. It is something that we have prioritized and that we have been working on,” Ferreira said.

As for a short-term solution, Ferreira said the government had stockpiled truckloads of fill at the landfill and was also engaged in compacting the waste, covering it and wetting it.

“It is just regrettable,” he said of the fire.

“We were trying our best to ensure that something like this didn’t happen.”

The government is having a difficult time convincing people that preventing landfill fires was among its most urgent priorities.

Only recently, social media videos circulated showing scavengers returning to the dump, with Renew Bahamas, which had signed an agreement with the Christie administration to manage the site, long gone.

Just last week Ferreira told us that the police had been called in to deal with scavengers.

The landfill issue reminds that governing is tough business.

In opposition, criticizing is easy, but solving the big and even the small problems in government requires will and competence.

The same people who marched with the FNM, who supported the party a year ago, who placed their faith in Minnis and his team, could very easily turn against them if they do not see real solutions to these kinds of issues.

This is simply an intolerable state of affairs.

As we await the conclusion of the process to select a manager for the site, it is incumbent upon the Minnis administration to pump the necessary resources into preventing another fire.

There is simply no more patience left for another such event.                    

Candia Dames is the executive editor of the Nassau Guardian.
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