Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom
Maribel Biacorta has been working at the garbage dump since she was 14.

Roatan’s Aquifer and Reef are at Risk from the Mismanaged Garbage Dump

The most impressive recycling operation on Roatan has not been set up by the local or central government, or by the nonprofit organization. The island’s biggest recycling operation is done seven days a week, 365 days a year, by around 120 people who work on and often live on the Roatan garbage dump. They separate and salvage metals, plastics and glass; they retrieve usable lumber, find old refrigerators and pass them on to recycling centers in Coxen Hole.
Their dignified, important work goes unnoticed and thankless. They also find themselves earning a living in the most toxic and dangerous environment on Roatan - the “temporary” Roatan Municipal garbage dump.

One of the many people who work at the municipal dump is Maribel Biacorta, 22, who has been working at the refuse site since she was 14. Maribel can earn up to 250 Lempiras finding aluminum cans, and plastics that she resells to a recycling center. There are several intermediaries that can even purchase the materials right on the garbage dump site.

Maribel has sad eyes of a woman twice her age and her hands are wrinkled and covered with scars. She works without gloves so pieces of glass and metal often cut the skin of her small hands. It is late Sunday afternoon. She places bottles and containers of value into a four foot long transparent plastic bag.

The bag contains about thirty pieces of dirty, used, discardable containers most people see no value in. There are aluminum cans worth 80 Honduran centavos each, there are heavy plastic containers worth two Lempiras each and one glass coca cola bottle worth another two Lempiras.

If Maribel works hard and is lucky, she is able to buy milk for her two-year-old baby that lives with her and her parents, a hundred yards east of the garbage dump. If it is a bad day she might not even earn one hundred Lempiras.

There is an unwritten agreement that each recycler not take away, from a pile already collected. The Municipal dump is dotted with piles of old metal roofs, stacks of wooden pallets, bags of aluminum cans and heaps of rusting refrigerators and dishwashers. Nobody touches these piles but its rightful recycler and now owner. Honor system and gentlemen rules are a big part of recycling life in Mud Hole, Roatan.

PMAIB garbage dump site in fire in 2017.

Roatan Municipality employs three security guards at the garbage dump. Abiel Navarro has been a security man at the dump for seven years and makes sure nothing happens to the one key piece of equipment that moves trash and flattens the heap of trash. Navarro lives in a makeshift structure on the garbage dump itself. There are a dozen improvised mini houses on the site of the dump where people eat and sleep.

Despite the work of many devoted municipal employees the simple truth is that the local government is not competent enough to manage basic infrastructure projects. Roatan municipal government broke the desalination plant in Coxen Hole, but its biggest fiasco is the garbage dump that it has been mismanaging for two decades.

Its limits fall in the maintenance of fairly complex entities such as desalination plants, garbage dump or black water projects. Since 2013 the Municipality has run the desalination plant that has been sitting vacant ever since, perpetually waiting for some filters replacements.

It all started with a million dollars and high expectations. Back in 2000, the idea was to have one, centrally located garbage dump for the entire island. Construction and operating costs would be less; the two municipal governments could not come to an agreement where to locate such site.

The original Municipal dump had a lifespan of 10 years, but lasted 17 years without much maintenance, proper compacting and lack of proper layering of refuse. The original site of the 100 by 200 meter garbage dump in Mud Hole was opened in 2002. PMAIB (Proyecto Manejo Ambiental De Las Islas De La Bahía – Environmental Management Project of The Bay Islands) spent $850,000 to set up the site and another $600,000 to purchase garbage collection and management equipment: two garbage trucks, a compactor and a pusher.

Municipal dump is dotted with piles of old metal roofs, stacks of wooden pallets.

The equipment survived about a decade and the dump site survived 16 years. In 2018 after several outbreaks of fires and constant complaints of the public the PMAIB dump was finally covered up with a layer of dirt. This took place as Mayor Jerry Hynds took over the Municipality in 2018. The island’s refuse management problem was never solved, but only covered up and shifted to a new, adjacent site.

A new site for the growing municipality was needed and Roatan Electric Company (RECO) and Roatan Municipality worked together to secure land nearby the old dump. The site was just raw land devoid of trees yet it to serve as a “temporary” dumping site.

RECO purchased a six-acre property for around $250,000 and donated it to Roatan Municipality. In exchange RECO had promised to put a garbage incinerator on the site and use the capped dump site for a solar farm. Thus RECO has become a party to the Roatan garbage management fiasco.

Kelcy Warren, the American billionaire and owner of RECO, residing sometime on Barbareta, has focused a try-just-about-anything and see-if-it-works strategy for the power company. RECO has run its Wärtsilä generators on natural gas supplied from Warren’s US energy operation.

To the tune of $7 million it has recycled old and obsolete wind turbines for a wind farm and it built two solar plants that destroyed island forest and leveled hills. Warren, trying to add to his hodge-podge island eclectic empire, has been eyeing methane gas from Roatan’s mismanaged dump as another source of energy.

Unfortunately the municipal dump is a disaster that could happen before RECO gets control of the site. With each passing year, the probability of a catastrophic event increases. With the mismanagement of garbage and the proximity of the site to the sea and reef there is a danger of contaminating the island’s marine ecosystem.

People search through garbage looking for bottles, cans and metal.

Another catastrophic scenario, one of several, is where garbage is carried by water in a natural gulley, passes the mangroves and is carried by the rain water onto the reef of the entire Sandy Bay. This is unfortunately quite possible and would be a truly an ecological calamity.

Just a few months ago a large part of the gully has been interrupted with a mound of dirt mixed with trash. Now the “temporary” dump has a permanent leech pond with floating trash, plastics and rusting pieces of metal.

The volume of the garbage deposited at the dump is growing by 20 percent every year. “When I left we had 18 tons of garbage a day,” says Julio Galindo, ex Roatan Mayor and owner of AKR tourist resort, about the volume of garbage picked that the Roatan Municipal since 2017. “There are probably 40-50 tons [collected] a day now.”

Strong, dangerous chemicals, pollutants and plastics are sunk into the soil below the dump site. The engine of Roatan’s tourist industry – Sandy Bay, is just a hundred meters away, down current from the garbage dump. “Everything is there: car batteries, oils,” says Galindo. “The mangrove not enough to stop the runoff”

There is another, just as scary scenario where the island’s aquifer becomes contaminated by the refuse from the dump. For the past four years chemicals, oils and other contaminants leached into the soil below the “temporary” dump. These hazardous liquids and liquefied contaminants travel dozens of meters down through soil eventually reaching the aquifer used for drinking water across the island.

RECO has become a party to the Roatan garbage management fiasco.

At least the original PMAIB dump had retention walls and polyurethane liner. The “temporary” dump site has none of that. A clear sign of the toxicity of the dump is how, after just a few months, large trees that were left at the “temporary” garbage site had died. They couldn’t handle the pollutants, and toxic chemicals in the ground that slipped in and killed their root system.

There are signals of increased amount of refuse being found all over the island. Over the last several years trash in unprecedented quantities has been washing on to the reef in Palmetto and as far as Camp Bay. The tags from the food products place the origin of the trash as made in Honduras.

The problems with the Roatan garbage dump are not limited to what we could see, or to the solid waste itself. The old garbage site that has been on fire for years has likely not been stabilized and is another disaster waiting to happen. “The dump fire is probably still burning,” says Vernon Albert, a builder with experience in water and waste management from US who has been living and working on Roatan since 2005. “The 4 mm polyurethane heat-sealed liner is probably compromised due to the fire,” says Vernon.

The surface fire that had started on the PMAIB dump in 2013 was finally extinguished in 2018. Roatan Municipality had extinguished the surface fires by bringing in masses of dirt to cover the original dump that has not solved the problem of containing the fires that likely still smolder underneath the dirt cap.

But while the smoke has kept Roatanians preoccupied, the current covering up of the problem does not. The unsightly sight and foul smell is not only a nuisance, but they are also causing diseases and lowering property values in areas close to the dump.

Strong, dangerous chemicals, pollutants and plastics are sunk into the soil.

Galindo has more thoughts on Roatan Municipalities’ handling of the dump in Mud Hole. “The garbage dump is not temporary, it’s been four years now,” says Galindo. “I sold them [Roatan Municipality] 73 acres of land I regret selling them. They haven’t done anything with it,” says Julio Galindo, whose Anthony’s Key Resort is just two miles down from the current garbage dump.

The smell from the burning refuse site has been a headache for property owners and for tourists. The few trees that have been left at the site have died. Their roots were poisoned by the toxic seepage of the garbage: the battery chemicals, the industrial oils, Freon and rust.

There are other people very concerned with what environmental hazard and environmental disaster the dump has been. Nick Bach, of Roatan Marine park also thinks that some trash has been washed from the “temporary Roatan Municipal Dump. “The majority [of trash] comes from the colonias where there is inadequate trash removal and people just throw most of it on the streets, or in the creeks,” said Bach.

Some environmental voices have been critical of the looming environmental calamity. “This temporary dump is a disaster. It doesn’t have a containment wall, and practically has no maintenance,” said Joel Amaya. “There is one or two creeks that take the garbage to the sea, to the mangroves.”

Environmental group such as Bay Islands Conservation Association (BICA) on the other hand have placed the blame of the unfolding environmental disaster on bureaucratic hurdles. “The process of a technical landfill requires an environmental license, which requires the respective studies, which don’t happen overnight,” said Irma Brady, founder of BICA.

“The dump fire is probably still burning.”

The reason why the garbage dump site has been mismanaged for over two decades is also a question of priorities. Roatan Municipality spent millions of dollars to fix national roads while leaving their “temporary” garbage dump with practically no attention. While Roatan Municipality under Jerry Hynds (2018-2022) has embarked on a campaign of building new roads and rebuilding national roads network on the island, the building of a new dump has been placed on the back burner. Also RECO has spent millions of dollars on new solar projects while the site of the temporary garbage dump is a chemical wasteland.

There are few things more important than air and water and earth that we plant our food crops in. The Roatan municipal garbage dump has been affecting all of these issues.

It is also the issue of legacy. Neither municipal government nor any person is entitled to endanger or squabble resources passed onto him by prior generations. Sadly, now islanders find themselves allowing the destruction of the very environment that raised them.