Environmental activists call on the government to use a scientific method for segregating the waste and to stop further dumping in the Perungudi area.
Malarvizhi didn’t mind the thick smoke billowing over Perungudi on the night of April 27. Here, fires are a common occurrence. She recalls that she felt the smoke and closed the windows, so she went to bed. It was only when she woke the next morning and saw it that she realized it. A raging fire in the dumpyard was erupting into huge plumes. She says it was the first time she had seen anything like it.
The Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC), which was trying to put out the flames after a huge fire broke out in Perungudi’s 225-acre landfill, took three days to put out. The 6-km radius of the municipal dumpyard was filled with approximately 3.63 million cubic meters of waste at the time of the incident. The yard is known for its annual fires and smoke. “The fire was more widespread this time, so people are suddenly discussing,” Malarvizhi, a volunteer at Tamil Nadu Science Forum, says. “Officials often claim they have stopped dumping garbage in the yard. The garbage piles have remained the same size throughout all these years. After years of struggle, this dumping has seen its horizontal expansion decrease. However, the waste continued to grow vertically.
Although the fire is out, the alarm is still ringing. Environmental activists who have repeatedly protested the Perungudi landfill’s location and its impact on groundwater contamination are now urging government officials to use a scientific method for segregating the waste and stopping any further dumping in the area.
Malarvizhi also worries about the health of residents living near the landfill. The fire caused heavy smoke and breathing problems to nearby residents. TNM visited Perungudi (Seevaram), Kallukuttai, and other nearby locations to hear from people about how the dumpyard and sewage water treatment plants had impacted their daily lives.
“More then 50 trucks of trash are being dumped in this yard each night. The problem is not in the yard. We have problems with the dust caused by the lorries that pass us, transporting both solid waste and sewage, however. The trucks have also caused damage to the road that leads to our home. Rajendran, a 61-year old resident of Perungudi’s Seevaram, believes that it is necessary to properly renovate the road. “The smoke and fire were not a problem for me. He adds that the wind carried most of the smoke towards the Velacherry and Kalkutta regions.
The saviour of the wetland
Jayalakshmi (55), who is a resident of KPK Nagar in Kallukuttai claims that she hadn’t seen any smoke on the evening of April 27. The sky above our heads became thick with smoke the next morning. To understand what was happening, I ran to the balcony. The smoke was thick. She said that it didn’t have a significant impact on our residential area.
Jayalakshmi notes that some residents had suffered breathing difficulties and suffocation following the fire. But there was no major concern. This wetland is a salvation for us, you understand,” she says, pointing towards the water body that surrounds the dumpyard. It acts as a natural barrier to the Kallukuttai residential neighborhood. She said that the groundwater would smell in summer when it was fetched from the earth. It is perfectly fine all year round, she says.
K Raniammal (74), a woman who moved with her family from Seevaram to Kallukuttai 26 years ago, said that she was standing on a swamp bank when the fire broke out and wondered if the flames would also eat them. This dumpyard existed long before we moved here. This was our place to call home. These thorny bushes were cleared by our people. We thought that this would be the end of our struggle. We can’t remember the smell of fresh, clean air. They started to release the sewage to the open water bodies, and that smell has remained in our lives ever since. We couldn’t breathe properly at first. She says that the main problem we face is the foul smell coming from the yard when they dig the waste or leachate. TNM was told by another resident who wishes to remain anonymous that they were unable to talk about the problems they are facing due to their proximity to the wetland. We fear that we could be evicted at any moment. These problems are part of our daily life, says Kallukuttai resident.
When adaptability becomes a problem
Geo Damin, a member of Tamil Nadu’s solid waste management committee, and a volunteer for Poovulagin Nanbargal’s environmental organisation, said that the problem with people is their ability to adapt. He spoke over the phone. Even if they initially feel uncomfortable about their current situation, they will eventually adjust to it and become comfortable with it. This area is at risk from groundwater contamination. The residents are well aware that groundwater is unfit for drinking and have stopped relying upon it. He says that they now depend on the metro water truck for water.
The environmentalist added that residents are not to blame for not acknowledging these underlying problems. They inhale toxic gases all the time, but they don’t know it. He also points out that it is not only those living near the landfill that are affected. All of these groundwater routes are interconnected. The aquifer that supplies almost all of south Chennai is located in the Pallikaranai marshland. This situation is not only affecting the Perungudi, Kallukuttai or Velachery residents, but also the residents in a larger area of the city. He states that the issue is becoming more serious and should be addressed using scientific solutions.
The Tamil Nadu government proposed biomining again as a solution to the Pallikaranai marshland fire. Biomining refers to the treatment of garbage with bio-organisms (or natural elements like sunlight and air) so that the biodegradable components in the waste are broken down over time. Geo said that this method is not suitable for daily clearance. “We cannot use this same method for solid refuses that have been dumped in the same place for more than 30 years without segregation. We throw away sanitary napkins and diapers, as well as expired medicines, cosmetic tubes and batteries, as well mobile wastes, in the same garbage bags. These items are not household garbage. Perungudi says that organic matter segregation using biomining will not yield results unless it’s done correctly at the source point. He adds that while the government’s intention was admirable, the methods we chose are not efficient or sufficient to handle the amount of waste we dump at both Pallikaranai and Kodungaiyur sites.
Geo points out the fact that toxic waste can end up causing harm even in places where proper segregation has been done. Non-degradable materials are further separated into recyclable and not-recyclable. The recyclable wastes (like metal scraps, plastics, bottles, etc.) are then made into pellets and sold at cement plants. These pellets are toxic because they emit toxic gases during incineration. Cement factories are not designed for reuse of such pellets. These operations are not subject to any regulations or guidelines. He explains that this is dangerous.
Civil societies have begun to discuss this. The government can now educate the public, raise awareness and use all infrastructure available to solve problems. Geo asks Geo: How will we manage the waste in the Chennai metro area?
G Janardhan is Associate Professor at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, National Institute of Technical Teachers Training and Research. He points out that the Perungudi dumpyard does not function as a landfill. Perungudi dumps waste in a low-lying area of clay. It is not scientifically designed. There are only two landfills that can safely dispose of hazardous waste in Tamil Nadu. They are located in Gummidipoondi, and Virudhunagar. The liner is placed between the waste and the surface for collecting leachate. This prevents contamination. He also states that the garbage is often covered with soil to speed up the composting process. He states that there is no monitoring or regulation at the Pallikaranai or Kodungaiyur dumpyards. How a dumpyard is chosen will also depend on the cultural and social aspects of the community.
Janardhan explains that municipal solid waste (MSW), was previously considered manageable and not dangerous, so a liner was not required. MSW used to contain more than 60% organic and biodegradable content. However, today all types of garbage are mixed. Janardhan says that this heterogeneous waste composition is what causes the problem. He says that the GCC doesn’t believe the dumpyard allows the leachate into the interlinked groundwater network. A solid surface will prevent water from leaking into the ground. However, the leachate can cause an increase in the acidic levels of the dumpyard. This causes soil characteristics to change and can lead to contamination. Perungudi residents face many problems including the degradation of groundwater quality. Janardhan explains that all the residents have turned to canned water and no longer worry about groundwater quality. Janardhan’s team has been collecting waste samples in Perungudi and nearby residential areas for over a decade to study groundwater contamination and land use.
Janardhan shares the thoughts of Geo Damin when asked about the effectiveness of the biomining process. He adds that further tests will be conducted on Perungudi samples to determine the best way to reduce the severity. To reduce plastic bags’ use in our daily lives, it is important to follow the ‘polluter pay’ principle from the grassroot. People should be encouraged to use cloth bags. Shops will pay money to customers who have their own cloth bags. To bring about massive change, we need to think from the grassroots, he says.
Geo Damin believes that integrated solid waste management is a long-term solution. Our economy must be transformed into a circular system, where the things we use have additional uses or can be recycled, shared and leased. This would reduce the amount that waste ends up in these dumpyards and landfills. Zero waste equals zero landfills and zero toxic emissions. This zero landfill principle encourages people to consider other disposal options and to be more mindful of the value of what they throw away. He says that this applies to individuals as well as companies, factories, and large-scale industries.