photo: Laura Bijnsdorp

PHILIPSBURG – Most of the Dutch side of Sint Maarten was clouded in smoke Monday, due to a large fire on the island’s dump. Schools, businesses and the government administration building closed down due to the hazardous smoke.

“Again we are faced with a situation where the community is brought in danger by this significant fire and the smoke caused by it”, commented managing director of the Nature Foundation, Tadzio Bervoets.

Frequent fires
The fire, started on Sunday afternoon at what residents refer to as the ‘new dump site’, which is adjacent to the main landfill of Sint Maarten. The ‘Irma’ site mainly consists of debris from hurricane Irma. Although there is speculation that this fire was intentionally started, fires on the landfill have been occurring for many years.

On Sint Maarten there is no waste-separation and thus just about everything gets dumped on the landfill. Due to this reason, once fires occur, heavy toxic smoke is emitted. “I want to cry,” writes resident Barbara Cannegieter, who has been blogging about the issues of the landfill for over a decade.

Toxic smoke
During previous studies in air quality and soil composition at the Philipsburg landfill the Sint Maarten Nature Foundation recorded positive results for arsenic, lead, cadmium, copper, and other heavy metals, which be toxic to humans and have been shown to cause some forms of cancer.

In the past weeks the Nature Foundation has been sharing out masks on various occasions, to protect residents from the toxic smoke emitting from the landfill.

The Fire Department also advised persons living downwind from the landfill fire, to close windows and doors, especially persons who have a respiratory challenge such as asthma, or shortness of breath.

Once fires occur at the dump, heavy toxic smoke is emitted. Photo: Laura Bijnsdorp

Health compilations
In May 2016, The Nature Foundation conducted a survey among residents regarding the landfill fires. They found that the smoke caused by the landfill fires affected persons living in all districts of Sint Maarten. 40% said that they sought medical assistance because of health complications arising from the fumes caused by the landfill

“Teachers and students have had to go home sick on various occasions, due to the continuous smoke emissions”, says Geanne Van De Werf, a high school teacher who works near the landfill.

Residents evacuated
During the night many persons living near the dump, were told to evacuate the area for health reasons. Those evacuated included dozens of persons that were housed in emergency shelters after hurricane Irma. Bervoets: “We are urging that restoration funds be used towards the management of the solid waste issue once and for all.”