Let us not forget the fire
Roughly two years ago, on a windy day, the smell of smoke caught the attention of residents in Jubilee Gardens.
It was just another lazy Sunday. Some were making Sunday dinner or getting ready for church.
But that didn’t last long. A fire at the New Providence Landfill forced hundreds of residents to flee as the flames crept dangerously close to their homes.
There were stories of fireballs shooting near homes and exploding on the ground. Some residents recalled watching the fire spread through the pines.
Smoke billowed over the community and much of New Providence for weeks. The winds blew, the smoke rose and the fire raged.
Police and other officials were seen roaming the smoke-filled community wearing masks, urging residents to leave.
On March 6, 2017, a day after the blaze started, some nervous residents in Jubilee Gardens returned, hopeful that their homes were still intact.
Julie Johnson was one of those residents.
“It’s horrible,” she told reporters that day.
“Actually, when I came back I was actually crying to see the backyard because people were sending me pictures of my house just to see the backyard on fire.
“It was horrifying. To know you put so much into it and then to come home to nothing? It’s really bad.”
The fire at the dump raged for nearly a month.
There were similar stories; some had fire damage to their homes, others stayed when the evacuation order was given.
A Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) report on the 2017 fire described the landfill as a “hazardous waste partially controlled dumpsite”.
It identified seven types of waste at the dump: municipal or urban solid waste; cruise waste; green waste; medical waste; marine litter; e-waste (cables, appliances, etc); and hazardous waste.
PAHO concluded that the fire was an acute health risk, and the landfill itself an “urgent public health hazard”.
Residents of Jubilee Gardens later sued the government and Renew Bahamas, the former manager of the site, claiming their health and that of their families, and the enjoyment of their homes, have been impacted by fires and hazardous smoke from the landfill for years.
There was one message out of the blaze, though: The patience of Bahamians had run out.
The Christie administration understood this. Then Prime Minister Perry Christie, in the throes of election season, and days after he had flipped the bird during a Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) rally, sought to address the need for new management of the landfill.
“…There is now compelling urgency to make a decision that is available to us with a view to bringing in this new level of partnership for [the] country,” Christie said on March 6, 2017.
The PLP never did.
While the prime minister updated the nation on the fire, Free National Movement (FNM) Leader Dr. Hubert Minnis was in Jubilee Gardens campaigning.
He said an FNM government would “bring an absolute end to fires”, among other issues at the landfill, by looking at the “bigger picture”.
In two short months, the Bahamian voting public ended its partnership with the Christie government and forged a new path with Minnis.
On May 24, 2017, in the speech from the throne, Minnis promised: “My government will set up a mechanism to respond to environmental incidents and emergencies, and to introduce liability for persons or institutions polluting our environment.
“My government will focus on the remediation of the New Providence landfill to minimize fires.”
But the fires did not care who was prime minister.
In January 2018, the dump began to burn, again.
Smoke blanketed portions of New Providence, including Baha Mar, which was barely visible in the haze.
The fire lasted but a few days, but it was a dreadful reminder that the landfill remained unchecked.
In 2018 and for much of 2019, the FNM had a tough time convincing Bahamians that it was serious about keeping its promise to address the landfill.
But on Friday, the government officially handed over the keys of the site to Providence Advisors and Waste Resources Development Group (WRDG).
In February, the government signed an agreement with New Providence Ecology Park (NPEP), which comprises WRDG and Providence Advisors, for a $45 million multi-phased redevelopment of the New Providence Landfill.
NPEP Chairman Kenwood Kerr said his company’s primary goal is to eradicate the occurrence of fires at the dump.
“We’re using an EPA standard that’s common in North America, which is called a cap and cover process,” he said.
“So, what is required as we receive the waste streams on a daily basis, we cover it with an adequate amount of top soil or cover. That way you reduce the oxygen content, you reduce the gas build up [and] you reduce the opportunity for fires to occur on a daily basis.”
Minister of the Environment Romauld Ferreira put it best.
“Let us not forget what precipitated all of this,” he said during Friday’s ceremony.
“Let us not forget the fire that forced evacuations, that had a dramatic impact on people’s homes, their health and ultimately their lives.”
We have been down this road before with Renew Bahamas.
Bahamians should never be subjected to fires at the dump again.
Ferreira is more right than he knows. Let us not forget the fire that raged for weeks at the dump. Let us not forget the smoke that crept into our homes, filled our lungs and closed our businesses.
Let us not forget.