Solution Appears on the Island’s Smoky Horizon
“When the wind blows form the West, North West it ends up on our house,” says Ana Svoboda, a local resident, who decided to purchase toxic gas masks for her family in case the toxic fumes raise again. “It chokes, it tears up my eyes, it makes me cough,” says Svoboda. “Even the dogs don’t want to go out of the house.”
While Svoboda’s home is usually upwind form the dump, east and downwind is Roatan’s tourist hub of Sandy Bay. “When the wind is really strong you can smell it all the way in West End,” says Svoboda. “It is shameful, with this many tourist that we have this.”
“The smoke is just terrible,” says Karen Ludlow. The toxic smell of burning garbage can be smelled not only in Western part of Sandy Bay but as far as Lawson Rock development… Over two kilometers downwind.
In November 2018, Karen Ludlow, the executive director of the Bay Islands Tourism Bureau, brought in Dr. Tony Sperline, owner of Sperling and Associates to see how the garbage fire could be stopped. Dr. Sperline produced a report of how to extinguish the fire using a specialized team for $3.4m or with a local team for $747,800 and submitted it to Roatan Municipality.
The Fire that had started in 2013 has only grown in scale since then. With little rain, and strong eastern winds the flames have gotten bigger and the smoke denser. Municipal garbage trucks continue to bring refuse from across the Roatan Municipality and dump it on top of the smoking trash stack. There are several families making a living from recycling the garbage and their homes are directly downwind from the burning refuse.
While Roatan residents seem to have lots of patience and restraint, that is not the case in other places in the Caribbean. In 2018, residents of St. Maarten Island sued the government entities for mismanagement of the local dump and allowing of constant fires.
On Roatan, social media is teeming with preoccupied island residents and tourists warning of impending disaster, “You poor people living on what was a beautiful tropical island. I am saddened by the lack of concern of the officials on Roatán. This horrible dump fire will drive your tourist away!” wrote on social media Judith Ann LaRoche.
The current mayor administration, albeit slower than many wish, is working at solving the problem of the fires and looking beyond the ongoing crisis. To manage the municipal garbage issue for decades to come, Roatan Municipality for $1.3 million purchased 76 acres of hillside land, between Coxen Hole and Mud Hole to construct a new municipal dump, build a handcraft market, a refuse center and possibly a municipal cemetery.
“The dump heap was designed to go as high as 14 meters, that is with periodical leveling off with dirt to keep the garbage flat, firm and absorbing its odors,” wrote Bay Islands Voice about Roatan Garbage Dump in 2006. The dump opened in 2002 and was supposed to serve the Municipality for 10 years. The dump lasted 17 years, and barely 10 meters high, in part because a layer of dirt was never placed on every one meter of trash as planned. The refuse was never properly compacted, layer or stacked. Now it’s just a giant mess. “It’s just too steep,” says Ludlow.
As part of a plan to extinguish the fire a six-acre property was purchased for around $250,000 by RECO and donated to Roatan Municipality. “The [central] government never offered to help, so a private business stepped in,” said Nidia Hernandez, a municipal council member. The plan is to move part of the garbage from the existing dump onto the new adjacent site and cap it with earth. One thing that Roatan has is the perfect soil to cap the refuse. “Its clay based, it’s a perfect type of dirt for capping the dump,” says Ludlow.
In exchange for the donation, RECO will be able to put a garbage incinerator on the six-acre site and use the capped dump site for a solar farm. While the power expected from the incinerator is not expected to be much, the incinerated ashes will reduce the volume of garbage placed in the dump and extend its years of usefulness.
RECO already offered to buy and manage the dump from the Municipality four years before when Dorn Ebanks was mayor. The mayor declined the offer and the ordeal just continued. The mismanagement of the dump was done by subsequent Roatan Municipal governments, yet some wanted central government to help with Roatan’s trash.