As I opened the door just now, the aroma of chemical-laden smoke wafted in. I quickly shut it again, and am now sealed in the house. Yes, as of this afternoon (and a week after it started) the fire at the Riverton City dump is still very much alight. I just posted the statement and recommendations from a very large grouping of private sector and civil society organizations following their press briefing yesterday.
Well, this is what has happened since the weekend…
- The board of the National Solid Waste Management Authority (NSWMA), the government agency responsible for solid waste disposal – and the dump – has just decided that it will not renew the contract of its CEO Jennifer Edwards, which expired last month. She had been asked to stay on until March 26, when she will now step down. See Do we laugh or cry? below.
- Eight more schools closed in the areas nearest to the fire just today, after students and teachers suffered the effects of the pollution. All schools in the Portmore area remain closed; smoke levels remain very high downtown this evening – Seaview Gardens, Marcus Garvey Drive and other areas.
- The crucial national GSAT examinations, scheduled for this week, will now be held on March 26-27;
- The date for the Kingston City Run, which was postponed last weekend, has been set for Sunday, March 22. Will the air be clear enough by then?
- The Ministry of Health did two air quality results and sent tests for volatile organic compounds to Canada. The results of the latter are due back today or tomorrow. Meanwhile Acting Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Marion Bullock Ducasse has reassured us that there will be “no long term effects” from the fire. Really?
- Government agencies have retreated into damage control/information management/denial mode. CEO of the Jamaica Customs Agency Major Richard Reese has denied reports that Kingston’s sea port was closed for three days. The Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management (ODPEM), having roused itself, now tells us to continue staying indoors – but there is “steady progress” in the outing of the fire. No specifics.
- The Jamaica Fire Brigade deserves a huge medal. The firefighters must be utterly exhausted.
- We have learned that the NSWMA has failed to table audited financial statements and annual reports for the past ten years, extending back through the four-year administration of the Jamaica Labour Party. This is not a failure of the current political set-up; it’s a failure of successive administrations over the years.
- We have also learned, via environmentalist Diana McCaulay, that the National Environment & Planning Agency (NEPA)’s report on the 2012 Riverton fire noted ambient air quality within 1km of the site “very high risk” and within 2km “high risk.” High levels of benzene (a carcinogen) were also found. And this time?
- Sixty per cent of the dump is organic waste, Ms. McCaulay notes. She recommends identifying several sites in Kingston to take organic waste; to find a place to store waste tyres – all that is needed is a fence and a roof. No tyres at Riverton (and can’t they be recycled?); and finally to step up plastic recycling.
- I recently met @cucumberjuice, a long-time Twitter friend and fellow-blogger, for the first time. Here is her take on it all: https://cucumberjuice.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/riverton-smoke-signals-a-distress-call/ As she points out, this disaster has affected close to half of the population of Jamaica. Portmore alone (which was severely affected) has a population of close to 300,000.
- The Gleaner believed both the CEO and the Chairman of the NSWMA (Ms. Edwards and Mr. Steve Ashley) should step down. So did the civil society/private sector group. What did the Prime Minister of Jamaica think? See below (“Do we laugh or cry?”). What did the Mayor of Kingston & St. Andrew think? She has been busy, touring a ganja farm in the United States. What did the Minister of Local Government, responsible for the NSWMA think? Ironically, he has been attending the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan. It ends today, so we might see or hear from him by the weekend. Perhaps?
Do we laugh or cry? Interviewed on CVM Television last night, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller made our collective jaws drop (yet again). She seems more comfortable nowadays talking to our intrepid television reporters, who wait for her outside Parliament; she used to back away on seeing a TV camera. She told the reporter, – leaning confidently on her open car door – she saw no reason for Ms. Edwards to be fired. Now, if Ms. Edwards had set the fire herself, if she was there at the time…“She would be gone!” declared our PM, with certainty. She repeatedly observed, “This is not the first time” (which we are well aware of) and no one was fired on previous occasions. So why now, she asks? Indeed. Why break the tradition of unaccountability?
The OTHER big news: The Prime Minister announced in Parliament yesterday that President Barack Obama will be visiting Jamaica on April 9, en route to the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Panama. The President will meet with Caribbean Community (CARICOM) leaders in Kingston (a meeting headed by current CARICOM Chairman Perry Christie of the Bahamas), and apparently will also host a Town Hall Meeting with Jamaican youth, which is a really great idea. It is only the second time since Independence that a U.S. president has visited Jamaica; do you know who the first visiting President was?
The Budget debate and Opposition response: Meanwhile, Opposition Finance Spokesman Audley Shaw worked himself up in a froth of emotion in Parliament in his response on the budget debate. It seemed to be more politicking than new ideas. Meanwhile, when the aforementioned TV reporter asked our Prime Minister how she responded to Mr. Shaw’s anger over increased taxes, she promptly told the reporter to ask the Finance Minister; she could not answer. Why not?
A worrying report: A continual worry is the way in which our mentally ill citizens are treated. The Bellevue Hospital in downtown Kingston struggles along with few resources. The staff do the best they can but are unbelievably overstretched – with a staggering ratio of one staff member to up to fifty patients! “Unfortunately we have an uncaring society,” says one Bellevue worker. “Most of the patients have been abandoned by their families.” So it has almost become a homeless shelter.
On a lighter note… There is such a thing as triple-name-brand footwear: There was a major raid downtown a few days ago, in which huge quantities of fake brand-name shoes were seized. Two Chinese nationals were arrested. Of course, this is a serious organized crime issue – but when the policeman said that some shoes had three name brands, I laughed out loud!
Many kudos to…
- National Integrity Action (NIA, which inducted 54 new members last weekend – and I am one!) and the University of Technology for an excellent Anti-Corruption Summit on Monday evening. Well attended by a largely young audience, and most inspiring. Chair of Transparency International (TI) José Ugaz was guest speaker, and the interesting and balanced panel moderated by Cliff Hughes. The discussion was lively and productive. I wrote about it in my weekly Gleaner post here: http://gleanerblogs.com/socialimpact/?p=2564 Enormous thanks to for the funding support of USAID and DIFID. Congratulations also to NIA, which is now the official Jamaican chapter of TI. I am very proud to be involved in this effort.
- Ms. Davianne Tucker, who was elected the new President of the Guild of Students at the University of the West Indies Mona campus today! This is an important leadership position, sometimes leading to a career in politics. With women being in the majority on campus, and the ongoing concern about gender-based violence there, it is heartening to see a bright young woman like Davianne at the top. Since 1951, there have only been seven female presidents out of a total of 64. Lavern King and Shanice Allen were elected vice presidents and Shanique Austin, treasurer, very much a female-dominated executive. Also many congrats to my young tweep @Germaine_Bryan, the 2015-2016 Commuting Students Representative – who also campaigned energetically for the position on social media, as you can see from these flyers.
- Congratulations also to the energetic, forward-looking Senator Imani Duncan-Price, who is the only representative for the Caribbean in the latest group of 187 Young Global Leaders selected by the World Economic Forum. This is marvelous stuff!
- In the past I have blogged about the great community efforts in Jacques Road in Kingston, supported by the Canadian High Commission. I visited there with then CUSO volunteer Kate Chappell, and was impressed by the team effort on the ground. Now solar photo voltaic panels have been commissioned to power the new community computer centre there. Congratulations to all involved in the great efforts to uplift, educate and empower the residents. I hope they will take great care of the new facility and believe it will benefit them enormously.
Once again, just in the past three days, several young people have been murdered – young Jamaicans under the age of eighteen, that is. At least two of the four “men” killed while standing on the street in Newhaven/Duhaney Park in Kingston last night turned out to be teenagers. In rural Clarendon, a young mother stabbed her baby to death after losing custody of the little boy, her only child, to her husband. And in troubled August Town, a 14-year-old student of Kingston High School, was shot dead by the police, allegedly during a shootout with gunmen. The grief of Joel’s father on television last night was almost unbearable. My deepest sympathies to all the families and loved ones who mourn. And by the way – this list is far too long. It covers just THREE days.
Cleveland Gayle, 18, Newhaven/Duhaney Park, Kingston
Kyle Poyser, 16, Newhaven/Duhaney Park, Kingston
Two unidentified men, Newhaven/Duhaney Park, Kingston
Gawayne Lincoln, Denham Town, Kingston
Joel Lovelace, 14, Bedward Gardens/August Town, St. Andrew (killed by police)
Jay Nelson, 18 months, Lesterfield, Clarendon
Damain Johnson, 24, Bull Bay, St. Thomas
Rayon Chambers, Norwood, St. James
Trevor Clarke, 27, Tucker, St. James
Denlyn Dunkley, 36, Appleton Estate, Siloah, St. Elizabeth
Josephine Cope, 49, Shrewsbury, Westmoreland
Bertram Lewis, 38, White River, St. Ann
Anthony Wallace, 24, Buff Bay, Portland
Robert Fyffe, 59, Zion Hill, Portland (American citizen)
Donovan Davis, Content District, Manchester