Riverton Fire: Air Quality Testing by GOJ Inadequate, says JET

So, are we all happy and satisfied that we know as much as we need to know about the disastrous public health incident that was the two week-long fire at the Riverton City dump in Kingston? Is it time for the whole thing to blow over? Our local media seems to think so – it has moved on. But many questions remain unanswered, and I for one am still quite in the dark, despite the release of the air quality tests. (I have frequently and regularly asked in this blog whether any of us know at any time what the air quality is like in Kingston, and whether ongoing tests are being done).

Emergency workers wear gas masks. (Photo: Gleaner)
Emergency workers wear gas masks during the latest Riverton fire, which began on March 11, 2015. (Photo: Gleaner)


The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) has a number of outstanding questions and concerns, which it outlined in today’s press release:

March 30, 2015

Kingston, Jamaica. – The Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) has reviewed both air quality reports produced by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) after the 2012 and 2014 Riverton dump fires, as well as the air quality data recently released by the Ministry of Health during the March 2015 fire. JET has several concerns about these documents and believes that citizens are not being properly advised of the impacts of the Riverton fires on public health. From the reports we understand:

1. NEPA appears to be relying on models to predict where the worst impact of Riverton fires will be experienced. The actual results obtained by NEPA rely heavily on results from existing monitoring stations operated by various industries, pursuant to air emission licenses for industrial facilities (JPSCo Spanish Town Road office, J Wray and Nephew Spanish Town Road, Petrojam and Garmex). Some of these stations are not at particularly high risk of impacts from a dump fire at Riverton (Garmex and Petrojam, for example).

2. Four NEPA operated routine monitoring stations appear to have been established sometime prior to the 2014 fire (Patrick Drive, Washington Gardens, Plantation Heights and Portmore). These are in addition to the stations it operates at its Cross Roads and Hope Road facilities.

3. The existing monitoring stations produce data for particulates and gaseous pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOC) and the oxides of nitrogen and sulfur, although not all parameters are measured at all sites.

4. The reports suggest that the air pollution levels seem to be within standards or close to within standards for the 2012 and 2014 fires, in contradiction to model predictions and the effects felt by citizens in the vicinities of Riverton. The reports make no attempt to explain these contradictions and so the results strain credulity for those areas most directly affected.

5. JET therefore questions whether the monitoring stations are appropriately situated – for example, are they at ground level? Are they at the appropriate distances from Riverton? Are they downwind or upwind of Riverton? At what times of day were samplings done and for what durations? Are they sampled at often enough to allow for reliable conclusions to be drawn? Were they selected based on model predictions and has the model been validated? One of NEPA’s own air quality monitoring station is on the roof of its three storey building at Caledonia Avenue –is this why it consistently reports levels that are within standards?

6. NEPA has yet to release any air quality data on the considerably more serious fire at Riverton in March 2015, which began on March 11th and is still producing a smoke hazard. Is it still operating the monitoring sites established prior to the 2014 fire?

7. The March 22nd press release from the Ministry of Health (MOH) identifies benzene (a volatile organic compound – VOC) as one of several hazardous substances generated by the fire, but gives no actual concentrations. This is not useful in assessing health risks. The MOH was quick to assure the public that there will be no long term effects from benzene exposure, but does not describe the significant short term effects. Is the MOH implying that it is acceptable to make people ill for a short period of time? What about compounds other than benzene?

8. Apart from benzene, no other toxic substances were mentioned in the press release, which is far too general to be useful. JET therefore requested and received the underlying data. The samples, received by a laboratory on March 17th, were collected from two sites, one in Half Way Tree and the other at JPSCo. The exact locations are not indicated, nor are the actual dates and times of collection, although the MOH release states that sampling was on March 13-14. It is not stated why these sites were selected. Is the JPSCo site the same as that referred to by NEPA in their earlier reports?

9. The laboratory report presents a list of 44 substances that are within the volatile organic compounds (VOC) category. The sums of the concentrations of all 44 compounds (called TVOC) are reported (139 and 324 micrograms per cubic metre for the Half Way Tree and JPSCo sites respectively) but NEPA has no standards for TVOC. Benzene, ethylbenzene and cumene were approximately ten times higher at the JPSCo site than at HWT, while toluene, octane, xylenes and styrene were approximately twice as concentrated as at the JPSCo site. NEPA has no standards for these compounds. Are they toxic? At what levels are they a threat to human health? What about the other 37 compounds listed?

JET once more calls on the two regulatory bodies, NEPA and the Ministry of Health, to routinely test air quality at properly selected sites for the city of Kingston and proactively release this information to the public. The acute and serious impact of dump fires is added to daily impacts to air quality from rampant open burning of trash and from vehicle and industrial emissions. We further call on the Ministry of Health to immediately undertake health surveys for those communities in closest proximity to the Riverton dump and on NEPA to be more proactive in protecting the air that all citizens breathe. At the moment, any citizen’s observations are more informative than the official reports of the two government regulatory bodies.

Diana McCaulay, Jamaica Environment Trust

A parent rushes from school with his child, who was overcome by smoke. (Photo: Norman Grindley/Gleaner)
A parent rushes from school with his child, who was overcome by smoke. (Photo: Norman Grindley/Gleaner)

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