Hidden dangers –– a closer look

EMERGENCY911 block-1Last week, our scenarios suggested that the hidden dangers created by the storage of hazardous waste was a far more complicated matter than is presented or discussed in most forums. Therein lay the problem as some of these hidden dangers were in fact created by man through industrial and economic development of that country, which eventually manifested its presence in communities and neighbourhoods.

We created a scenario that suggested that through infrastructural development, a typical country also unfortunately creates hidden hazards, which are in fact the waste materials left over from manufacturing. It is also assumed by the community that safeguards will be in place to protect the same community from these said created hidden hazards. Against the background of ongoing developmental plans, the scenario queried whether the country had taken into account the volume of waste (in the form of solids, liquids and gases) that would also be generated through the manufacturing
of consumer items? The answer according to public opinion was no.

Another public opinion conclusion was that the manufacturing industry did not take into account the level of severity of community-wide environmental impact should an industrial accident occur, or major fire affecting the manufacturing plant. In most cases, as has been seen through similar incidents, the level of impact on surrounding communities is not usually planned for by the industry.

In fact, it is the view of many communities that industry only gives “lip service” to residents, and government only significantly responds to incidents when it is clear that simple rhetoric will not satisfy angered residents.

Public opinion has also queried what happens to the waste material created during the development of those products for the marketplace? The consensus is that unless there is a comprehensive plan for the storage of that waste, it just stays loosely collected during production.

Any cursory examination of any major manufacturing plant will reveal that there may be as much as several hundred gallons of waste on the premises, with no significant programme in place to dispose of it. Residents whose properties may at times share common perimeters, will often comment about the number of abandoned 55-gallon drums of material often seen rotting alongside rear walls of some buildings.

What happens if there is contamination to some of the produced materials? These products are often declared as waste, and either recycled back into production, or stored. The issue here is similar to what happens if not all of the manufactured products are sold, and are in fact left in a warehouse beyond what can be considered a “shelf life”. The existing Caribbean-wide environmental guidelines on the disposal of expired products are nebulous in content, and do not address either long-term or short-term disposal of these products.

Against this background, it would be fair to consider the implied meaning of the phrase “what happens behind closed doors should not be your concern”. However, when one discusses the implication of the impacts of hazardous waste on a community, “what happens behind closed doors” does in fact either directly or indirectly affect everyone.

Consider also the implication of the used water as part of the manufacturing process. What happens to the now contaminated water? Is it recycled and purified and added to the domestic drinking water supply of a community? Not all water used in manufacturing can be recycled, or purified and returned to drinking water supply.

There are no clear answers to this question, as it is not known definitively in any country just how much water is required to support the manufacturing industry. What is known, is that regardless of which country is queried on this question, there is an extremely high risk of drinking water contamination from manufacturing.

There is an even higher risk to stream, rivers and oceans, as unless there is stringent regulatory control, the dumping of contaminated fluids in to open water sources is a very real possibility. The recent one-million-gallon toxic contamination from the abandoned Gold King Mine of the Animas River in Colorado, United States, is another harsh reality of hazardous waste contamination affecting an unsuspecting community.

The scenario also suggested that existing environmental regulations hold the manufacturer ultimately responsible for the waste until it has been safely disposed. What has never been clear by any authority is the issue of public liability when that stored waste now threatens an entire community.

It has only been determined that unless it is disposed of locally or off-island, it will continue to remain on the property of the manufacturer. However what are the regulatory guidelines that govern that storage? Existing public health guidelines do not comprehensively address this issue.

The majority of regional public health care systems and environmental protection departments when originally established concentrated primarily on general health and welfare issues involving disease eradication and overall public health protection. The issue of either managing the effects of a hazardous waste incident, or preventing the occurrence of such, has only become a major issue as countries continue to expand from an infrastructural point of view, where manufacturing becomes a major economic contributor.

Who is responsible for the disposal of the waste produced during manufacturing? What happens to the waste if off-island is cost-prohibitive? The generator/manufacturer is responsible for all costs associated with the disposal. The generator/manufacturer is also responsible for secure local storage.

Unfortunately, there are no comprehensive guidelines available for public examination that clearly define how waste is store. Existing public health guidelines have not been amended to reflect this concern. There are, however, guidelines under fire prevention that do address some of these concerns.

Unfortunately, responding fire services often complain about the lack of comprehensive information available to responders at the time of incident that would reveal in clear detail the contents of a burning manufacturing plant. In some instances, responders cannot be certain of what happens when different types of waste are combined under fire conditions. One such concern is toxic vapours from plastics when they are burning, which we will take a closer look at next week.

Another hidden hazard is the introduction of particulates, biological molecules, or other harmful materials into Earth’s atmosphere, causing disease, death to humans, damage to other living organisms such as food crops, or the natural or built environment. This is probably the most visible of any hidden hazard, but it is also the least talked about from a political and international business point of view, as none of the major industrial countries and their political directorates are prepared to implement the required regulations that could bring this problem under control.

To do so, would affect the bottom line. That bottom line is the financial profit margin of a country, which unfortunately influences also mostly every decision taken in a country.

(Email rgw.rgw1@gmail.com)

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