In 2013, a group of UWI researchers headed by Dr. Denise Beckles set out to study the impact of the Guanapo landfill on its environs, primarily the nearby Guanapo River.
“I was just interested in characterising what was going on in landfills,” said Dr. Beckles, who spent almost three years with her team doing chemical testing, air pollution monitoring, hydrological studies and risk assessment to get a full picture of what was going on in Guanapo. The result was a 2016 report that detailed the years of work, and all they had learned from studying the environmental water like rivers and groundwater, as well as soil, sediment and air around the landfill.
What they found was that the sediments especially were contaminated by metals from the landfill, but also from several other sources like nearby quarrying, agriculture, and even the people living in the area.
The leachate (contaminated water) from the landfill was their main focus, and this was where the bulk of their investigation was aimed.
“It has to go somewhere,” said Dr. Beckles. “A landfill has to be set up in a location with a particular geology so that the leachate, which is one of the major emission problems, can be minimised.”
Once the story of river contamination began going viral, there was widespread concern for the country’s drinking supply, as the Guanapo River feeds into the Caroni, which is used as a water source at the Caroni Water Treatment Plant. Inevitably, there was misinformation.
Dr. Beckles stressed that their study was not done on drinking water, and their sample sites were nowhere near the place where the Guanapo meets the Caroni. “People were getting very excited about the idea that the water was not safe and they should start drinking bottled water… and that is not so, unless you are drinking water directly out of the river.” Their focus was the landfill, and that was where they began taking steps to alleviate the problem.
“Our primary recommendation was that they treat the leachate that was coming out of the landfill, because it was flowing over land and getting into the water… and that was taken up wholeheartedly by SWMCOL,” she said.
From early on in the project, SWMCOL and the WRA were heavily involved, along with other invested groups like the Guanapo Environmental Community Development Organisation. Chemistry students were also among those from The UWI who carried out key parts of the research. The collaboration meant that there were more human resources to carry out the intensive studies.
“One thing I learned from this project is how important it is to have the people that you think will use the information on your team,” said Dr. Beckles. “Whereas I as a scientist had certain goals, the person at SWMCOL, for example would also know what she needs the information for. So we were able to ensure that our data was useful to them as well. At the end of the day, everybody is aware and the information is directly channelled to the people who will use it.”
Even the presence of the research team had a positive impact on the community. The meetings they held to share their information with the public were widely attended, and even drew the attention of then local Member of Parliament (Mr. Rodger Samuels, MP for Arima). Issues that the residents had been trying to solve were given more attention, like installation of box drains and road paving. The ecological risk assessment that they put together is being acted on, albeit limited by funding.
“They are trying to change what is going on in Guanapo. They are trying to do sorting, shredding of plastic, keeping the waste separate and reducing how much waste actually ends up in the landfill. In fact, there’s a pilot leachate treatment plant going up at Guanapo right now.”
While there was quite a bit of misinformation floating around once the story broke, Dr. Beckles maintains that “all information is good information” and was glad that people became curious enough to ask questions and find out what was happening. She hopes that the increased interest in Guanapo will create a wider spread of knowledge and enthusiasm to change the state of waste management in the country. She sees her role and the role of UWI in general to inform and raise awareness.
The UWI report “The Impact of the Contaminants Produced by the Guanapo Landfill on the Surrounding Environment” is available to any interested parties. For more information, email email@example.com.
Amy Li Baksh is a writer, historian and visual artist. She is currently working for the UWI Campus Museums Committee and is deeply invested in activism centred on the environment, marginalised social groups and animal rights.