The Brahmapuram Waste Plant Fire: Politics and Smoke over Legacy Waste

Port City Kochi in Kerala battles toxic gases as smoke from the Brahmapuram waste plant reaches City Alapuzha, and the fire at the plant refuses to die down.

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Politics over the Brahmapuram waste plant fire is not expected to go away anytime soon. On Monday, the Congress-led UDF opposition claimed in the Kerala assembly that the Brahmapuram waste facility fire in Kochi was deliberately started to prevent scrutiny of the site where several years’ of garbage had accumulated. Opposition leader V D Satheesan asserted that neither the local nor state governments were taking any action to handle the critical situation because the fire had yet to be put out or controlled. The residents there will experience short-term and long-term health issues due to the toxic smoke produced there, which has even invaded homes in the garbage plant’s neighbouring neighbourhoods. On March 2, a fire started at the landfill for rubbish.

The state Minister for Local Self Government Institutions, M B Rajesh, has denied the charges of the LoP claiming the situation at Brahmapuram was under control, and there was no cause for alarm or panic. He emphasised that there had been no reports of health-related emergencies or cases from near the waste plant due to the smoke. He provided information on the plans taken by the government to deal with any medical problems brought on by the hazardous fumes produced by the fire. Rajesh also provided information on the decisions made during a high-level meeting on Sunday that was convened at the Ernakulam District Collectorate to resolve the issue. He said that over 5 lakh cubic metres of legacy garbage had accumulated at the factory over the past 15 years and that only about a third had been removed. The fact that the residual trash had piled at the scene in multiple layers, however, was one of the factors contributing to the fire’s delay in being put out.

The Kerala High Court stated on Tuesday that the toxic smoke generated by the fire at the Brahmapuram waste factory had turned the port city of Kochi into a “gas chamber” and questioned the authorities as to whether the blaze could be put out by Wednesday afternoon. This was during the hearing of a case initiated by the High Court based on a letter by Justice Devan Ramachandran regarding the fire, which has been raging at the site since March 2. Notwithstanding the absence of industry in the city, the bench claimed throughout the hearing that the residents of Kochi were “locked in a gas chamber”-like condition. The bench asked several questions in the post-lunch session, such as if the fire was intentionally started, whether the plant was routinely inspected, and what efforts were being made to prevent illegal garbage dumping. The KPCB’s documents were “far from reality,” according to the records.

The court ordered the corporation to work with the authorities to streamline Kochi’s trash management before June 6. It also instructed the authorities to present it with a thorough report on what must be done to address the current city situation and the long-term problem of trash management. The KPCB accused the company of the pollution levels in Kochi, but the court declared that assigning blame to one another was pointless and that the parties should instead cooperate to find a solution. To contain and put out the fire, more than 30 fire tenders, Indian Navy helicopters and people, fire fighting personnel and equipment from oil-PSUs Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum, etc., were deployed during the past several days.

The story of unmet solutions and neglect

Throughout time, the neighbourhood residents faced environmental and public health risks due to the Kochi Corporation’s indiscriminate and ineffective handling of urban solid garbage at Brahmapuram.

To build a plant, The Kochi Corporation acquired 37.33 acres of property in 1998 and received a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the PuthenCruz panchayath council. The panchayat, however, decided in 2007 not to extend the NOC. The Cochin Corporation was instructed to dump or store rubbish at Brahmapuram in 2007 by a Kerala High Court division bench until a working waste disposal facility was built there. On June 30, 25 lorries transporting municipal rubbish began the dumping, forcing 53 families to seek shelter at a neighbouring school. The Chellipadam residents gave the government more land in 2008. A solid waste management (SWM) plant with a daily capacity of 200 tonnes of waste was put into operation the same year. The SWM facility has a long history of problems and has put nearby communities’ residents in danger in several ways.

The residents of the Vadavucode-Puthenkurish and Kunnathunad Panchayats opposed a proposal to build a factory that could process 500 tonnes of garbage daily in 2011. Since 2012, municipal solid waste of 5 municipalities (Aluva, Angamaly, Kalamassery, Thrikkakara, and Tripunithura) and the solid trash of Kochi corporation are managed by the Kochi Corporation and transferred to the Brahmapuram facility. Today, 383 tonnes of waste are delivered to the plant each day. High-level committee reports have repeatedly shown that the plant is dilapidated, and several facilities—including the facility that produces fuel from waste and the plastic shredding and bailing units—are broken. That leachate is accumulating at various locations. Moreover, 16 acres of non-biodegradable legacy garbage need to be cleaned up. Six panchayats get their drinking water from the Chitrapuzha and Kadambrayar rivers near the construction site.

For over a decade, the people of the two panchayats next to the trash disposal site have argued for a solution to the problem. Over the years, numerous centralised solid waste management initiatives have been tried and failed. The waste-to-energy facility is hailed as the long-term answer to this problem and for managing the accumulated legacy garbage at Brahmapuram.

Yet, despite objections from locals, the factory is still in operation, and trash still needs to be disposed of here.

(With inputs from EJ Atlas)