Thursday, January 3, 2008

Health Threat from Raging Garbage Blaze

Thursday, 03 January 2008
By Adel Al-Malki

As firefighters continued for the second full day to battle a huge blaze at the main garbage dump here, the General Presidency of Meteorology and Environmental Protection warned about the environmental and health risks stemming from the billowing toxic smoke that have enveloped the sky over the coastal city of some 3.5 million people. Parents in many districts did not send their children to school on Wednesday in order to prevent exposing them to the toxic smoke.

Hussien Al-Qahtani, spokesman of the General Presidency, said said the smoke cloud constitutes an imminent danger to public health and called upon the Mayoralty to speed up procedures to move the dump to a new site far from the city.

He said that strong wind in the evening caused the smoke cloud to cover most of Jeddah and that toxic emissions from the dump are directly responsible for chest and upper respiratory diseases spreading in Jeddah.

The blaze was sparked on Monday night reportedly by copper scavengers in the area. Since then, the Municipality has deployed 1,700 water-supply tankers to help Civil Defense firefighters trying to put out the fire. Strong winds are compounding the fire-fighting operations.

Adel Faqeeh, the Mayor of Jeddah, said the municipality did not use sewage water in the dousing operations. The water was channeled from the city's supply for domestic use.

The mayoralty, seeking to end the menace of scavengers once and for all, moved quickly to build a three-meter-high wall around the sprawling dump some 35 kilometers east of Jeddah from the Briman Bridge on Makkah Road.

Khaled Ugail, the Deputy Mayor of Jeddah said it would take 10 days to build the SR10- million wall, work on which will begin on Jan. 7. He said that Prince Me'teb Bin Abdul Aziz, the Minister of Municipal and Rural Affairs, has signed a contract for temporary operation of the dump for three months more until the new dump is readied.

Al-Qahtani said the new dump area has been constructed according to the latest international environmental specifications and standards.

Mayor Faqeeh said every precaution is being taken to prevent the fire from spreading.
"The municipality is using leftover waste from construction work to control the fire," he said. "We are also enclosing the area with barbed wire so as to prevent the African people (the suspected scavengers in the area) from entering the dump."

Civil Defense teams on Wednesday tried to open up roads inside the dump and allow firefighters better access to the blaze.

"Civil Defense tractors are also clearing garbage so as to make sure that there is no fire underneath," said Brigadier Mohammad Al-Ghamdi, director of Civil Defense in Jeddah.

"Eight Civil Defense teams used up some 900 water-supply tankers, but the firemen still face a lot of problems," he said. "The biggest problem is the huge quantities of waste that makes movement of firefighting teams difficult.

"Also the fire area is big and strong winds are carrying fire from one location to another."
Last December the Civil Defense' operation room received 120 reports of fire in the dump, prompting deployment of security units inside the location to arrest those sparking the fires.

"The security units arrested more than 157 illegal people and seized 24 cars in the dump," said Major General Ali Saadi, Director of Jeddah Police Department. "The cars were being used by people going to the dump to buy the metals from scavengers."

The scavengers make a living by extracting valuable metals like copper or reusable goods.
As the firefighting operations continued Wednesday, the smog made visibility poor in most parts of northern Jeddah.

Mohammad Al-Mutairi, a teacher in Hamzah Bin Abdullmutalib school in Al-Nuzha district said he was surprised when he went out of his house in Briman District in the morning.

"I thought that was over the city but when I smelled smoke I knew that the fire was still raging in the dump" Al-Mutairi said.

"When I moved on the way to school, I couldn't see Briman Bridge because of the smoke."

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