By Alexis R. Milan
A garbage disposal problem in San Pedro is causing serious health concerns for marine life and residents on the Isla Bonita experts claim and the island’s marine food sources are being compromised.
Household and commercial waste, produced by garbage, is being used as landfill and street fill on the island which has over the years, found its way into the surrounding waters and lagoons. Today experts claim the waste has polluted the marine environment and now threatens the stability of the ecosystem.
The practice of using garbage as land and street fill is common in Belize. If not monitored, the excretions pollute the surrounding land area, causing a number of environmental problems. These problems however, are magnified on an island, as land mass is limited. This causes pollutants to seep into surrounding waters, affecting marine life in the area. This in turn affects humans who eat contaminated fish. Despite the grim prognosis, environmentalists say the island has not reached an irreversible point.
The Reporter was given a tour of the most troubling parts of the island, namely the developing areas such as San Pedrito, San Juan and San Mateo, as well as others by San Pedro resident and tour guide Bill Henkis. In various parts of the island, garbage is dumped along lagoons and creeks and in swampland as landfill. When the tide comes in, much of the waste finds its way into the sea.
In some areas where the Town Council is issuing land, parts of the sea are being reclaimed using the garbage as fill. Discarded items such as old refrigerators, washing machines, old AC units, house insulation, fiber glass, car batteries, computer parts, tires and a slew of other waste is often counted as garbage and used as landfill.
Massive mounds of garbage are dumped in front of homes in some of the developing parts of the island as packing for roads. Some residents say, however, that the garbage has been sitting there for months and has attracted pests like rats, raccoons and insects. Others say the stench is unbearable as the garbage is lased with used diapers and toilet paper in many instances.
Most residents voice concerns for their health, especially their children, some of whom when unsupervised, play in and near the trash.
According to Chris Summers, a conservationist with the American Crocodile Education Sanctuary (ACES), they have recorded alarming findings via their research of crocodiles on the island. Crocodiles are viewed as an indicator species, Summers said, because they feed on the same type of marine life that humans do, mainly fish, shrimp and crabs. crocs have therefore were studied over a period of time to test their health status.
Summers said they became concerned when they started noticing increasing numbers of crocodiles with missing or broken teeth. Some crocodiles they found were blind for no apparent reason, he said.
“Crocodiles are known to have some of the strongest immune systems in the world, so to find them with illnesses and signs of poor health is very alarming,” Summers said.
ACES took samples from around 60 crocodiles of various sizes from all over the island. The vertical scales found on the tails, called scutes, were gathered and sent for testing in the US. The results revealed that the crocodiles have been exposed to high levels of heavy metals including aluminum, lead and arsenic – which explained the croc’s brittle teeth.
Dr. Marisa Tellez, National Science Foundation (NSF) post-doctoral researcher for the US government with a specialty in crocodile and marine parasitology has been doing research in Belize since 2008 and has noted marked changes in the environment and wildlife around San Pedro as well.
Tellez, who also did research in Louisiana documenting the effects on the wildlife following the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in 2010, explained that crocodiles which normally have a tough exterior, were commonly being found emaciated with peeling skin. Tellez said this was typical of crocodiles in Louisiana which had been exposed to arsenic and other heavy metals in the water.
According to Tellez, her team collected fish and crab samples and dissected them looking for parasites, noting that every healthy environment has a certain number of helpful parasites.
But in the San Mateo area of the island, they found no parasites in any of the subjects. This is usually a sign that something is wrong with the environment, she said.
Tellez said another indicator that something is wrong with the wildlife in the area is that most of the fish they gutted had extremely white livers with cysts on them, whereas healthy specimens, like humans, have red livers.
Even more alarming, Tellez said, was that they observed people catching fish in the same area where they collected their samples. People who fish in those areas may be ingesting traces of heavy metal pollution as well.
By comparison, the team collected a sample of fish about 10 miles north of the island in a pristine area where there isn’t much development or people and found a healthy number of parasites in those fish.
Tellez said she has taken tissue samples that she intends to send to the US for testing but she is waiting on legal clearance for her samples to be sent. She expects similar results from her tests with fish, as with the tests on the crocodiles.
Tellez said , she is aware that places like New Jersey in theUS and China, which have used trash for landfill, have had a number of health problems caused by heavy metal pollution of the land and the water. “But it’s not too late for Belize to reverse these effects,” Tellez said.
Chief Environmental Officer in the Department of the Environment, Martin Alegria said he was not aware of the ssituation on the island, only that there were a number of residents who had been making complaints and had written to the department.
Alegria, after seeing pictures of the dump-sites on the island from the Reporter’s visit, said he will send officers from the DOE to investigate the matter and assess the situation before making any decisions. He added that there should be a health inspector on the island to look after and report matters such as the garbage problem in San Pedro.
San Pedro Mayor, Daniel Guerrero told us that while he believes the use of garbage for land and street fill may have some negative impact on the environment, he believes that the experts have exaggerated their claims. Guerrero was adamant that harmful waste was not polluting the environment around the island.
He conceded that there were areas of concern on the island and said some residents also dump their own garbage independently of the Town Council at these sites. He said that the Council has tried to discourage this practice.
Guerrero said even though the Council tries to provide mostly organic material such as old wood and coconut husks as landfill, the reality is that San Pedro is growing fast and there are so many developing areas on the island, that using garbage as landfill is the only practical and financially sustainable solution.
The San Pedro transfer station, which is being constructed as part of the Solid Waste Management Project, funded by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), is expected to be completed by mid-May, Guerrero said. When that is opened, the current dump-site where garbage is being burned will be closed.
The transfer station, like the one built outside Belize City, will be used to sort through different types of garbage and separate re-cyclable from non-recyclable material. It is expected that when the station opens, it will create employment opportunities.
Guerrero said he is open to hearing from the experts and partnering to reduce the environmental impact on the island once they are presented with realistic and feasible options. Development brings both good and bad with it, he said.
Guerrero said resources are the number one limitation for the San Pedro town council, “We can jump and scream but if the money isn’t there, what can we do?”
While the level of impact is debated between the experts and those in authority, both sides can agree that more can be done to reduce the negative effects on solid waste on the island.
It is estimated that annually, more than 3,500 short tons of solid waste from commercial and residential use are collected on Ambergris Caye alone. One short ton is equivalent to about 2,000 pounds which indicates that on Ambergris Caye, over seven million pounds of garbage is generated annually. It is projected that by the year 2030, the island will generate approximately 8,173 short tons of garbage each year.