Tamil Nadu

Wasted: fire in the dump yard 

Greater Chennai Corporation and fire and rescue service personnel at the Perungudi Dump Yard Fire, controlling the blaze on April 29, 2022.

Greater Chennai Corporation and fire and rescue service personnel at the Perungudi Dump Yard Fire, controlling the blaze on April 29, 2022. | Photo Credit: K. PICHUMANI

Small fires frequently break out at Perungudi and Kodungaiyur dumpyards during summers. They are usually put out quickly. Last week’s fire, however, was different. The massive fire caused an alarming increase in pollution levels, giving sleepless nights to thousands of families in the surrounding areas, including Perungudi, Kallukuttai, Velachery and Taramani.

“This time, fire broke out from coconut husks dumped inside a portion of the dumpyard and quickly spread to other areas. It was like a mountain of garbage burning,” said B.K. Ravi, Director- General of Police, Fire and Rescue Services.

Also, firemen say there was a delay in informing them of the fire. “We were informed very late, almost two hours after the fire broke out. Had we known early, we possibly could have contained the spread,” said a senior officer.

Thirteen fire engines, two aerial ladders and over 120 firemen worked round the clock for days and nights to put out the fire. “This is a large dumping yard and fire has spread till the core. Even if fire is controlled, smoke comes up,” Mr. Ravi said.

Various factors were at play this time, leading to the fire raging on for days. One, new units permitted in the dumpyard for various kinds of work. including biomining, are said to have caused some disruption in normal operations. Two, the new workers in the biomining units and other processing units do not know the significant aspects of a fire in the dumpyard and their actions could have aggravated the problem. 

Chennai Corporation officials say the emission of methane gas could have caused the fire, possible with the dumping of large quantities of garden waste. Wind direction, temperature and humidity were also favourable to the spread of the fire, officials said.

Residents’ woes

Raju, a resident of Taramani, said the burning in the dumpyard was a recurring problem. “There have been instances of fire before, but they were always ignored. Since it is serious this time, authorities have taken note of it,” he said.

“The smoke enveloped the area where we live. The air was thick with ash and smoke. We had suffocation and breathing difficulties,” said A. Ramesh Manikandan, an advocate who lives at Kandanchavadi.

V. Srinivasan, a resident of Valmiki Nagar, said his house, located five km away, was affected by the air pollution and smog. “Burnt particulate matter from the dumpyard was suspended in the air around most of the residential neighbourhoods in the area over the past few days,” he said. 

M.A. Ganeshan, president of the Thiruvalluvar Nagar Kudiyiruppor Sangam, said, “We have organised several protests against the dumping and burning of waste at the Perungudi dumpyard. Every day, we have an unbearable stench. Last week was unbearable.”

The long struggle

On October 2, 2004, residents in the southern part of Chennai distributed pamphlets to mobilise hundreds of people and staged a satyagraha against the indiscriminate dumping of waste and to save the Pallikaranai wetland. After 18 years, the fire in the dumpyard provoked a group of angry residents to fish out the same old copy of the pamphlet to print a similar one, with minor alterations.

Corporation workers and fire and rescue services personnel working at the dump yard.

Corporation workers and fire and rescue services personnel working at the dump yard. | Photo Credit: K. PICHUMANI

Most of the nine demands listed in the old pamphlet, dated October 2, 2004, are still valid, say residents. The first demand is that the State government declare the entire marshland a reserved forest. However, the Corporation has continued to dump huge quantities of waste, almost 2,500 tonnes every day, all these years, causing further deterioration in the condition of the marshland.

The only progressive initiative in the last decade was the handing over of a part of the marshland on the southern part of the radial road for eco-restoration by the Forest Department. After almost 430 acres was handed over for eco-restoration, more than 225 acres is still with the Corporation and used for dumping of garbage.

After efforts to find alternative dumpyard sites at Kuthambakkam and Minjur-Vallur failed during the previous AIADMK regime, the condition of the Pallikaranai marshland has worsened with the Perungudi dumpyard increasing in size. As biomining of waste has started with six private operators occupying the marshland this year, the Chennai Corporation has announced that all the legacy waste will be processed in three years, followed by a decision to end unscientific dumping of waste.

S. Kumararaja, of Save Pallikaranai Marshland Forum said the residents plan to resume the movement to shift the dumpyard from Perungudi after the fire. “This is the biggest fire in the dumpyard since 2003. Many residents have inhaled a huge amount of toxic gases this time. Residents fear that the air pollution might have a major impact on public health in the area in a few months,” he said.

However, Corporation Commissioner Gagandeep Singh Bedi said, “Our doctors at the medical camps have not identified any major respiratory problems in the area. We will continue to conduct medical camps to assist the residents.”

Toxic gases abound

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board (TNPCB), which has been monitoring pollution levels near the dumpsite, found that levels of PM10 (particulate matter (dust) of size lesser than 10 microns), had gone up alarmingly when the fire raged. It, however, came down as the fire was put out.

TNPCB Chairman A. Udhayan said, “We will take it up with the local bodies so that steps are taken to avoid such fires since the effect is very serious. They not only release greenhouse gases but also toxic gases. The impact on flora and fauna is being monitored by the Wildlife Department, which is very much aware of the situation,” he said. 

Jayshree Vencatesan, managing trustee, Care Earth Trust, said the fire was a big setback to the restoration of the Pallikaranai marsh. Everything from the air to the water, humans and amphibians must have been impacted.

Ms. Vencatesan underlined the need for regularly monitoring the dump vis-a-vis the marsh and for more studies to be taken up by the Forest Department. The dump has to be phased out and out-of-the-box solutions have to be found, she added.

Two studies on the Perungudi dumpyard by Anju Elizbath Peter, S.M. Shiva Nagendra and Indumathi M. Nambi of the Department of Civil Engineering, IIT Madras, show that the frequent fires at the site can emit toxic compounds.

The elemental analysis of PM 2.5 samples collected at the dumpsite indicated higher concentrations of certain toxic elements such as arsenic, cadmium, copper, chromium, nickel, lead and zinc during winter. The results indicated that the average concentrations of toxic heavy metals were found to be much higher than such metals observed in ambient PM 2.5 emissions at an e-waste recycling area in China.

Similarly, the team which also analysed the old solid waste found that temperatures at the site varied according to the depth and it was higher than the temperature at the surface. Measurements of gaseous emission below 6–7 m from the surface indicated a higher concentration of methane, which is inflammable.

( With inputs from R. Sivaraman, Aloysius Xavier Lopez and Deepa H. Ramakrishnan

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jul 21, 2022 5:07:43 am | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/wasted-fire-in-the-dump-yard/article65369820.ece