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LEAD IN THE WATER

SEAN DOUGLAS Thursday, February 16 2017

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TOXIC lead is in our drinking water.

The pollutant, known to cause neurological disorders, has been contaminating water supplied to the Caroni Water Treatment Plant for years, posing a health risk to tens of thousands of citizens including children, Parliament’s Public Accounts Enterprises Committee (PAEC) was told yesterday, during a meeting with officials from the Solid Waste Management Company Limited (SWMCOL), led by its CEO Ronald Roach.

Unlike modern landfills, the Guanapo Dump was set up without first covering the ground with an impervious lining to prevent toxic chemicals from seeping into the subsoil and eventually making its way into water courses as run-off.

As such, rainwater has dissolved dangerous chemicals from items such as car batteries, medical waste and bio-hazardous materials dumped at the landfill site.

This resulting toxic soup (known as ‘leachate’) of deadly chemicals including lead has polluted ground water that runs into the Guanapo River which in turn feeds WASA’s Caroni Water Treatment Plant.

Independent Senator David Small dubbed the situation an, “ecological disaster and national emergency”. He said, “There is no safe level of lead for our children.

Our children are drinking lead!” Caroni East MP Dr Tim Gopeesingh, a medical doctor, said lead retards brain function and also warned that smoke from dumpfires may be cancer-causing. “I’m quite alarmed,” declared Government Senator Foster Cummings.

“The country’s in quite a bad situation.”

TT BEING POISONED Gopeesingh added, “We are being poisoned! The matter is not getting the attention it should get.” Minister of Social Development Cheryl-Ann Cockburn Critchlow, chided the SWMCOL CEO’s report saying, “We didn’t pick up that urgency.” SWMCOL said they knew of this contamination since 2014, a fact that further shocked PAEC members.

Roach said SWMCOL could not afford to monitor the Guanapo Dump, whose sorry state was only unearthed by the University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine.

SWMCOL officials said $24 million is needed to remedy the Guanapo Dump, but only $1 million was allocated through the PSIP (public sector investment programme) resulting in a mere ‘pilot project’ to deal with leaching.

The committee asked if SWMCOL had notified its line ministry - the Ministry of Public Utilities - of this crisis. The SWMCOL CEO replied “yes”, many times via documents, reports and position papers.

Labour Minister, Jennifer Baptiste- Primus, said the SWMCOL should have alerted the Ministry of the hazard by a special report, not by mere routine documents. Since 2014, Ganga Singh (under the People’s Partnership), Ancil Antoine and Fitzgerald Hinds (both from the current PNM administration) have been Public Utilities Minister with direct responsibility for SWMCOL and WASA.

ONLY $1M TO TACKLE LEAD Hitting SWMCOL over inaction, she said all persons should now be very worried. “This is very serious”.

Dr Gopeesingh accused CEO Roach of ‘beating around the bush’ and pointedly asked him, “What’s your plan? Can you do the job or not?” Roach said he is working with the line minister (Fitzgerald Hinds) but could only do so much with what funds are allocated. “$120 million is required to fix all landfills,” CEO Roach said.

Roach said Beetham and Guanapo Dumps must be remedied and converted to transit sites for sorting/ recycling trash, with all waste ultimately sent to a new site at Forres Park Dump that will possess an impervious lining and leachate- collection.

Gopeesingh was also upset that smoke from the Forres Park Dump led to a hike in cases of cancer in nearby residents, constituents of Tabaquite MP Dr Suruj Rambachan.

Roach said another hazard is the build-up of combustible methane gas at public dumps.

Roach said a consultant’s report on lead levels, begun a month ago, will be ready within a month. Gopeesingh chided SWMCOL for knowing of the contamination since 2014, but taking no other action.

Small said he was mentally struggling to understand how this could happen, saying SWMCOL should have exposed the issue of lead in the water as a national emergency, even if they had to “take the rap” from the line minister later.

CEO Roach said he shares the committee members’ concerns but added the situation is “not overnight but took decades.” Public Utilities Ministry permanent secretary Maurice Suite said that last year’s $1 million allocation for ‘leaching had boiled down this year to zero dollars.

Baptiste-Primus said, “Lead in our water courses is a matter of national concern and should be in a special report to Cabinet.” She urged a special allocation as part of a concentrated focus to remedy a national problem. “Every citizen ought to be concerned. It’s not too late for a special report to Cabinet.”

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