With caution tape, chains and a lock, the administrator of Costa Rica s largest and oldest trash dump finally closed the gates of Río Azul Tuesday in an act he claims will set off a Central Valley trash crisis over disposal sites.
The Public Health Ministry, however, which ordered the dump to stop taking trash so a proper technical closure of the much maligned heaping hill of waste can begin, assures there will be no crisis.
While the closure may not mean the end of heated discussion over the more than 3-decade-old dump-turned-landfill, it did conclude a long and controversial attempt to shut down the site 15 years of legal wrangling, political backbiting, scandals and protests, the type of ballyhoo that has become the signature of trash management in Costa Rica, a country that ironically banks off its eco-friendly reputation.
On Tuesday, more than 70 buzos, or informal trash pickers, many whom have worked at Río Azul their whole lives and now have no jobs, protested the closure with their families. Eggs were lobbed at the crowd that gathered at the gates during the closure ceremony, and several children picketed with signs protesting the closure.
If there s no work, there s no beans, said 42-year-old trash picker Víctor Marín, a father of three.
It s going to be chaos starting today the Health Ministry has created a crisis where there was no crisis, said Alexis Cervantes, manager of the Federation of Municipalities of the East (FEDEMUR), which comprises eight eastern Central Valley municipalities. The Federation manages the 7-million-ton landfill and is responsible for its technical closure. Cervantes in recent months has been butting heads with officials from the ministry over the closure order.
Río Azul, which has become a symbol of Costa Rica s larger trash problem, is far from having the resources it needs for a proper closure, he said. The eight municipalities still owe more than $1 million to FEDEMUR.
But Health Ministry trash advisor Edgar García said the ministry has set aside funds to cover the cost of a proper closure, and will oversee the project. He added that the eight municipalities, which for years have sent their trash to Río Azul, have or are in the process of establishing agreements to send the estimated 500 metric tons of waste they generate daily to other landfills.
Also, García said, a group of trash pickers met with Vice-Minister of Health Lidieth Carballo and Ombudswoman Lisbeth Quesada Wednesday to discuss the possibility of providing them with training and employment opportunities.
For more than a decade, residents who live in the impoverished neighborhood surrounding the landfill, southeast of San José, have called for a closure, but FEDEMUR has always claimed that municipalities have shorted it on payments it needs to properly close the dump.
But enough is enough, according to Health Minister María Avila Luisa. The longer the site stays open, the more problematic it becomes.
Río Azul is a reflection of an endemic problem, she told The Tico Times.
Some 50 open-air dumps that resemble what Río Azul once was are scattered across the nation, and the Health Ministry has ordered closure of them all.
But if Río Azul has set the precedent for how cash-strapped municipalities will manage waste in the future, the future is looking grim. Trash management here has been a political mess rife with corruption allegations that suggest waste policy is driven by graft as much as by public interest (TT, July 22, 2005; Nov. 24, 2006).
Trash is a political conundrum that nobody wants buried in their backyard.
FEDEMUR spokeswoman Lucrecia Zúñiga explained that since Río Azul has closed, most of the trash that once arrived here will be sent to the privately managed La Carpio landfill, operated by Costa Rican- Canadian firm Berthier EBI, at least until Aug. 14, when a new landfill in Aserrí, south of San José, also operated by EBI, is expected to open.
But residents near the La Carpio landfill west of the capital are already petitioning for an injunction to have that site closed, and it s not the first time area residents have objected to the landfill.
At least 30 people were injured, seven by gunshot wounds, when violence erupted in 2004 when police attempted to remove a blockade residents had erected to keep EBI, which collects all of San José s solid waste, from passing through the impoverished community to the dump.
Residents were protesting news that the landfill had been contaminating the community s drinking water and to demand that EBI fulfill its promise to pay for community development projects in the area. The company had suspended payments due to suspected misuse of funds (TT, June 4, 2004).
Now, area resident Adreina Ramos is taking on a more peaceful form of protest. She s collected more than 600 signatures supporting a closure.
Since four years ago we ve had to put up
with bittersweet, nauseating odors coming from the dump, which have caused us to complain on multiple occasions of headaches, nausea, vomiting, allergic problems, asthma, the petition says.
Ramos said she s filed complaints with the Health Ministry, San JoséMunicipality, and the Ombudsman s office, with no results.
The problem is that the smell is so intense that we can t sleep at night. My kids can t sleep. At 4 a.m. the reek of a chemical wakes me up, she added.
And Río Azul and La Carpio may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Take, for instance, Liberia, the capital of the northwest province of Guanacaste.
Environmental groups want a regional landfill instead of garbage dumps scattered throughout the canton. The Environment Ministry allowed the Municipality of Liberia to reopen a landfill after it was closed because the municipality had resorted to dumping 35 metric tons of trash a day into two ditches on municipal land, the daily La Nación reported.
Or the trash-ridden municipality of Tibás, which has struggled for years to collect the garbage its 72,000 residents produce (TT,March 3, 2006).
A recent report by the German-Costa Rican Competitiveness and Environment Program (CYMA) found some gloomy statistics.
The country produces 11,000 metric tons of waste a day, about 80% of which could be recycled. But the buzos are among the nation s few recyclers. The Health Ministry estimates that more than 300 tons of trash per day end up in vacant lots, irrigation ditches and rivers.
Above all I believe we must create a culture of recycling, said Health Minister Avila at the June summit in which the National Materials Management Report of 2006 was presented.
Of 160,000 tons of plastic produced each year which can take centuries to degrade only 22,000 tons are recycled.Virtually all used oil in Costa Rica doesn t get treated, and about 70% of paper and cardboard is thrown in the trash though it could and should be recycled, according to the CYMA report.
Some companies, such as Florida Ice and Farm, which runs the Cervecería de Costa Rica, have begun recycling initiatives. More than half the beverage giant s cans are recycled, according to the report.
And some communities, such as those on the southern Caribbean coast and the northern Caribbean town of Tortuguero, have taken matters into their own hands with community recycling center start-ups (TT, July 13, 20).
Even some U.S. entrepreneurs are offering up new solutions to the trash problem.
U.S. businessman Bill Roush, for instance, has proposed to build a plant near Guápiles, over the mountains east of San José, that would recycle or incinerate 3,000 tons of trash per day, producing electricity and funding children s organizations at the same time. Another U.S. businessman, Ken Roblyer, has proposed to build a similar trash-burning, electricity-producing plant in the Pacific port town of Puntarenas (TT, Nov. 3, 2006).
The CYMA report is part of the administration s larger plan to take on the trash problem, nearly two decades since the government declared the problem of garbage disposal a national emergency.
Last year, the government created the Coordinating Commission for the Search for an Integral Solution of the Management of Solid Wastes in an attempt to coordinate trash solutions between a vast array of public institutions (Oct. 13, 2006).
The commission was key in publishing the CYMA report, and based on its research, the administration plans to present a wideranging trash plan next month, Health Minister Avila said.
And what about the future of Río Azul? There are more opinions about Río Azul in Costa Rica than there are inhabitants, said Gabriela Delgado, for the German government aid agency GTZ, which has been helping devise the multi-faceted plan to deal with the country s waste woes.
The inhabitant with the strongest opinion, it seems, is Cervantes.
Río Azul has been closed without a plan, the manager says, leaving a time bomb.
Río Azul generates this broth, this highly toxic waste a cup of it could kill a donkey, Cervantes said. If not treated properly, it could cause landslides or could literally become explosive.
The Health Ministry now faces the daunting task of overseeing the first-ever technical closure of a dump in Costa Rica, a process that will include ongoing treatment of toxic juices and methane gases for the next 20 years, as well as the creation of a planned ecological park over the whole thing with trees, bike paths and soccer fields.