A group of residents affected by smoke emanating from fire at the Pockwood Pond landfill gathered outside the House of Assembly on April 17 in protest over the issue, which they deemed a health hazard.(Photo: ALVA SOLOMON)

About 10 residents affected by smoke from the Pockwood Pond landfill held a protest outside the House of Assembly on April 17, voicing their concerns over health issues caused by fires including one which they said lit up several days earlier.

“This is our health we are talking about, and it cannot continue,” Daphne Stoutt told reporters outside the HOA. The burning has been a frequent problem in recent years, but Ms. Stoutt said that residents were affected by the “worst” smoke in recent memory on the night of April 16.

Then Minister of Health and Social Development, Marlon Penn who was on hand to listen to the protestors, told them that he had engaged with the chief medical officer and his ministry’s permanent secretary on the matter and he was awaiting an update.

Call to action

The residents, however, called for immediate action, urging Mr. Penn to ensure that the fire at the landfill is extinguished. One of the protestors was Dr. Karl Dawson of the Virgin Islands Party. He told Mr. Penn that the smoke has been emanating from the site on a nightly basis in recent days. He called for any action “that could help us today” by quelling the fire at the site.

Dr. Dawson also told reporters that the government must see the issue as a national health emergency that should be given “highest priority and highest urgency.”

He added that people in the area are experiencing respiratory issues as a result of the smoke from the site. The day of the protests, the BVI Cancer Society sounded a similar warning. “We have received numerous calls from concerned residents, who fear for themselves and their families,” the non-profit organisation stated in an open letter.

“They worry about the correlation between the harmful smoke and what appears to be a rising number of cancer cases in the area. As an advocate for health issues in the territory, we cannot stand idly by while our people suffer.”

Incinerator shutdowns

Fires caused by spontaneous combustion have been an ongoing problem at the landfill, especially during periods of increased use while the trash incinerator has been shut down due to fires and other issues.

Most recently, the incinerator has been shut down for more than a year following a fire on Feb. 14, 2022. At the time, then Health and Social Development Minister Carvin Malone said it would likely be offline for two to four months. The Department of Solid Waste later upped that estimate to seven months, a target that passed last September.

Previous fires

A previous fire in November 2018 also left the incinerator inoperable for more than a year. Even after a new control panel was installed in January 2020 and the facility resumed operations, it continued to suffer failures that left it shuttered for weeks at a time.

Starting in March 2021, for instance, the plant shut down for about six weeks because of a faulty hydraulic pump, during which time residents complained about fires and smoke frequently rising from the landfill behind it.

The incinerator also had been operating without a pollution-control scrubber, even though in 2015 the previous government paid a $500,000 down payment for one to the Virginia-based Consutech Systems LLC, which manufactured the incinerator.