Kochi’s Brahmapuram | a dump fire that stinks
Smoke from the Brahmapuram Waste Treatment Plant hung over Kochi for several days. , Photo Credit: Tulsi Kakkat
TeaThe March 2 fire in Brahmapuram was not the first fire at the garbage processing plant – a euphemism for a 110-acre open dumping yard with a failed Windrow composting facility and a yet-to-start waste-to-energy plant. The last few years have seen an outbreak of yard fires at roughly the same time every year. The Kochi Municipal Corporation, which runs the plant, initially provided a generally non-listing response. But this proved to be disastrous as the fire broke out and soon a thick layer of foul-smelling smoke enveloped the city and surrounding areas.
Editorial | Playing with fire: A look at the Brahmapuram fire and how Kerala needs to take a look at its waste-processing
There was no shortage of warnings about this impending disaster. When it followed a major fire incident in 2019, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) found huge lapses in solid waste handling at the site and asked the state to show urgency in cleaning up the ‘legacy’ waste at Brahmapuram. As per the estimate for 2021, around 5.5 lakh metric tonnes of second hand waste was dumped in an area of 40 acres in Brahmapuram.
In May last year, the Kerala government told the South Zone Bench of the NGT that Zonta Infra Tech Pvt Ltd had started ‘biomining’ – the process of segregating old dump yard waste and turning it into reusable resources – in Brahmapuram in January 2022 , and by May 28% of the work was over.
But with talks in the direction of a new waste-to-energy plant at the site, which would require a regular supply of large quantities of waste, the Kochi Municipal Corporation went into hibernation and failed to ensure that the yard had fire extinguishers. Stay on , Along with this, the toxic smoke emanating from the garbage dump proved to be a double whammy for the firefighters.
It is no surprise that the State Pollution Control Board has now slapped a fine of Rs 1.8 crore on the municipal corporation. The NGT, on its part, asked the civic body to deposit a fine of Rs 100 crore with the chief secretary. Meanwhile, the state government launched a health survey in the smoke-affected areas of Kochi.
But there are deep concerns about prolonged exposure to compounds such as carcinogenic dioxins. When the Thiruvananthapuram-based National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology conducted studies in Brahmapuram after fire incidents in 2019 and 2020, dangerous levels of dioxin were detected in the air. The institute recommended an in-depth study of environmental pollution in and around Brahmapuram – in soil, sediment and water. The delay in such studies is inexcusable.
The yard is located in a wetland filled with land on the banks of a river, which supplies drinking water to some panchayats in the vicinity, and leachate from the waste has already polluted the Kadambarayar river. The landfill is where more than half a dozen local bodies dump their waste. A fair share of the 326 tonnes of waste generated daily by Kochi ends up in landfills.
The latest fire has triggered a political blame game and allegations of corruption in the awarding of contracts for biomining. A committee appointed by the High Court audited the yard premises and found the facilities inadequate. The crisis has given the state administration an opportunity to review its waste management practices and replicate in Kochi what it has tried with great success elsewhere – decentralized management of waste. This would mean that as far as possible, biodegradable waste would be processed at home, with the rest being treated at community-level treatment facilities. Thiruvananthapuram and Alappuzha have already taken steps in this direction and many former dumping yards in the state have been converted into recreational public spaces.
A step in the right direction after the fire, as stated by the Chief Minister, is raising the Harit Karma Sena (Green Army of volunteers) for 100% collection of plastic and other non-biodegradable waste for safe disposal and recycling. Swachh Kerala Public Sector Company. The key to good waste management practice is the separation of waste at all levels into as many categories as possible so that it is easier to handle.
Against the backdrop of Brahmapuram, biomining is set to pick up pace at about 50 garbage dumping sites in the state. But what is worrying is the government’s determination to press ahead with unproven, polluting and unviable solutions such as waste-to-energy plants, without which Kerala can do.