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Securing environmental health

Published: Jul 30, 2013

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T he recent New Providence landfill fire due to poor management of the area harmed the health of nearby residents. The prevalence of spills, leaks, fires or other incidents across the archipelago warrant immediate attention by government to implement regulations and enforce accountability. And the government especially should seek to live up to the standards set out in law.

Since the Environmental Health Services Act was enacted in 1987 few of the recommended regulations have been properly implemented, much to the detriment of the Bahamian people. Regulations for the collection and disposal of waste only came to fruition in 2004. In fact, the act explicitly recommends measures for the prevention and control of pollution of the air, contaminated land and water. While we can praise such forethought, successive efforts to enact final environmental legislation continue to fail.

The Planning and Subdivision Act 2010 may be considered a small victory for the natural environment with its attempt to promote sustainable development through planning policy. On the positive side, it briefly outlines the requisites for an environmental impact assessment or statement, but it hardly satisfies the need for more stringent controls to prevent and hold accountable the release of harmful substances into the environment. Surprisingly, the Department of Environmental Health Services does support an Environmental Monitoring and Risk Assessment Division; yet its absence from public discourse provides little assurance.

The Bahamian people are justified in their outcry over the lingering dump fires. The government’s request for nearby residents to keep doors and windows closed is not a long-term solution. Even more so, the public ought to know the extent of adverse impairment to ambient air quality. We would be naive to assume that all garbage in the New Providence landfill is adequately sorted, eliminating the presence of potentially hazardous substances.

But dangers to human health and the environment also lurk within the land. Contamination of land, particularly below the surface, is difficult to detect and when discovered it is prohibitively expensive to remediate. Earlier this year, an underground gasoline leak was discovered at a Robinson Road gas station. Residents with water wells were right to voice concern over the lack of information provided about the leak. The Ministry of the Environment and Housing engaged a Canadian firm, SENES Consultants Limited, to investigate and submit a report to the government.

Environment Minister Kenred Dorsett, in response to the gas station leak, noted that the government is looking to impose stiffer penalties for environment-based offenses. Such a practice may enhance vigilance and hold accountable private businesses, but what about the potential adverse impacts from government-owned entities such as BEC and the landfills? BEC admits lagging behind on maintenance and using Bunker C, a known dirty fuel. Can the government assure residents that smoke stack emissions meet international air quality standards? What about car and bus emissions, or even cruise ship emissions while they are downtown?

As an active participant in numerous United Nations environmental conventions, The Bahamas cannot feign ignorance over the cumulative hazards to human health and the environment. The expansion of environmental education through community programs by the Bahamas National Trust and Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation is building awareness.

Exerting greater control over the accountability for harmful releases into the environment would surely benefit the Bahamian people. International standards from recognized entities such as ASTM International exist to identify recognized environmental conditions and determine steps for containment and removal.

Bahamians should expect more from their government regarding the safeguard of human health and the environment. The government has the blueprint and the knowledge, it simply needs greater pressure from the people to act.


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