Brahmapuram fire: An environmental disaster that was waiting to hit Kochi

Studies on previous minor fire incidents at Brahmapuram dump site by National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology have shown dangerous levels of dioxin contamination.
Brahmapuram Medical camp
Brahmapuram Medical camp
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For the past 12 days, firefighters have been trying to douse the smouldering fire that spread on waste heaps at Brahmapuram in Kochi, a massive dump site spread over 110 acres housing an unwieldy mix of garbage — biodegradable and otherwise. Multiple fire tender units are pumping in several thousands of litres of water per minute into the dump with help of earth movers which upheave the mounds so that water can reach the layers beneath.

Local administration and ministers have claimed that the fire is under control and the smoke from smouldering dumps would be contained soon. An update from the District Collector on March 12 said they have been successful in containing fire in five out of the seven sectors of the dump site, identified to streamline the firefighting operations. The remaining two sectors were both marshy lands where the fire tender units could not venture in.

Brahmapuram fire and history of toxic emissions

Brahmapuram dump yard isn’t new to fires and an outbreak was witnessed as recently as in January 2022. But the blazes were controllable, and rarely lasted for more than two days. The incident in 2020, however, had concerned Justice AV Ramakrishna Pillai – then chairperson of the State Level Monitoring Committee (SLMC), an authority constituted by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) – enough to write to the Kerala State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) seeking a study of the dioxin emission at Brahmapuram.

A study by the National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology (NIIST), found that a low level of cancer risk persists to the exposed community at the site due to emission of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDD/Fs) and dibenzofurans from accidental MSW (municipal solid waste) open fires. Dioxins are a class of highly toxic persistent organic pollutants, which are produced during combustion processes such as waste incineration, open burning of MSW.

NIIST’s 2020 report also noted that the average dioxin levels observed in the ambient air at Brahmapuram was 3.2 picogram (pg) TEQ per cubic metre air, which is 16 and  2.5 times respectively higher than field blank and control site measurements. In 2019, the levels were even higher - 10.3 pg TEQ per cubic metre air, which were 50 and 10 times respectively higher than reference and field blank data.Toxic equivalency (TEQ) is a value that allow researchers to compare the toxicity of different combinations of dioxins and dioxin-like compounds released into the atmosphere.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that the maximum tolerable monthly intake of dioxins for humans is 70 pg TEQ per kilogram, which means the tolerable annual intake for a person weighing 65 kilograms is 54.6 nanogram (ng) TEQ. According to NIIST’s study, the total quantity of dioxins generated at the site during the 2019 incident was 306 mg TEQ.

Earlier fire incidents did not last for more than two days. Yet the studies showed there were emissions that had to be taken seriously.

The 2021 report also noted that with frequent fire outbreaks in the dumpyard, the surrounding environment would have been contaminated with higher levels of dioxins and furans. "The decade old history of fire breakout incidents must have resulted in the contamination of nearby vegetation and human settlement areas... A systematic study of the levels of dioxins in animal origin food samples from the surrounding region is highly recommended to predict the health risk of consumption," the study noted, while highlighting the need to establish a modern solid waste treatment plant.

“Dioxin and furans are the major concerns here. They are dense, colourless and odourless. The life span of dioxins is around 10 years. It's a carcinogen that can lead to cancer. The NIIST report showed how much emitted in one day of fire, so think about this huge fire, how much they might have emitted,” said CN Manoj, a chemical scientist and an expert in urban waste management.

Heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can be generated in municipal landfill fires also pose a potential threat, according to a study by the National Centre for Biotechnology and Information, USA. “PAHs are among the pollutants hazardous to human health and have been included in the list of hazardous substances, with important factors being the quantity of the substance, the duration of exposure, the route of exposure, and the effects of other chemicals to which the body is exposed. PAHs can penetrate the body via the respiratory and digestive systems, and by direct skin contact with particular substances such as soot and tar,” the study said.

Reasons for fire

Anaerobic decomposition of waste stored in dump sites releases methane gas and presence of combustible substances increases the risk of fire in MSW dump sites. Surface fires and underground fires are common in such sites but the latter is difficult to extinguish because it would go undetected.

Brahmapuram had 5.5 lakh cubic metres of waste, most of which was unsegregated, as per an official estimate. Biomining of legacy waste was being carried out at 40 acres of land by a company called Zonta Infratech and the Refuse Derived Fuel (RDf) in bale form was being stored here added to the fire risk.

The Kochi Corporation had opposed the plan to store the RDF at the site but the Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KSIDC), the nodal agency involved in facilitating a Private Public Partnership (PPP) Waste-to-Energy project allowed Zonta to store them at the land which has been leased out to them. Zonta, which won the bid for the WTE plant, had said it would use the RDF once the project is commissioned.

There are allegations that the recent Brahmapuram fire was man-made. “It won’t burn on its own, or through a spark. Once the fire is lit then it can easily spread,” alleges Shibu K Nair,India Coordinator for Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA). While there is always the possibility of fires being lit deliberately to reduce the volume of solid waste and increase the landfill operating life, probes have not substantiated the allegation.

Brahmapuram fire is now considered one of the most challenging missions the Fire and Rescue Department in the state had to face. Fire tender units from districts as far as Kannur and Thiruvananthapuram were brought to Brahmapuram to assist the operation involving 200 firefighters and Hitachi excavators. Choppers of the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force also helped in the operation.

The threat of leachate contamination

Activists have raised concerns regarding the threat of leachate contamination of groundwater and nearby rivers in Brahmapuram because of heavy use of water for firefighting. According to an official statement, at one point of time around 40,000 litres of water was being pumped into the smouldering waste heaps since March 2, when the fire was first reported. The water came from Kadambrayar River into which the leachate would flow.

Using water to suppress landfill fires is controversial as it can actually make the fire worse by increasing the rate of aerobic decomposition. But an expert committee meeting presided by Additional Chief Secretary Dr A Jayathilak came to the conclusion that use of water, rather than foam with hydrocarbon surfactants, was best suited to contain the fire at Brahmapuram under the current circumstances. The district administration also received similar advice from the New York fire department.

Leachate contamination at Brahmapuram dump site, which does not have a functioning treatment plant, has been a serious concern for environmental activists since it opened. It is also not an engineered landfill. The Kerala State Pollution Control Board and the SLMC had several times warned the Kochi Corporation about the pitiable state of Brahmapuram and the risks of not having a leachate treatment facility. This means that even when it rains, leachate from the waste heaps would flow into Kadambrayar.

“Corporation collects degradable and non-degradable waste from the household separately. They don’t even accept wet plastics, so it is a big question how they all end up together in Brahmapuram,” asks CM Joy, retired Professor Environmental Science, Cochin University of Science and Technology.

Shibu K Nair says Brahmapuram, flanked by rivers on two sides, is almost like an Island. “Dumping waste here is purely illegal. For the last 15 years they have been dumping waste and the entire area is polluted. It started as a plant that can handle 100 tonnes of waste. Later it all stopped working and now hundreds of tonnes of waste is being dumped here,” he said.

However, Manoj feels that administration alone cannot be blamed. “Why can’t people seriously think about source-level composting and segregation? We just throw out waste in plastic bags, how can that be treated?” he asks. 

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