Kochi waste dump fire
Firefighters try to douse the fire at the Brahmapuram waste plant in Kochi, Kerala, in southern India on March 4, 2023. The fire has been controlled but the fumes continue to billow from the landfill posing health hazards for residents in the neighbourhood. Image Credit: ANI

The smell of burning rubber and the putrid odour of rotting garbage wafts around Kochi, a coastal town in the south Indian state of Kerala. Residents have been choking on the toxic fumes swirling around their neighbourhoods for several days since a fire erupted at the Brahmapuram waste treatment plant on March 2.

The fire has been controlled, but smoke continues to billow from the dump. Residents say a toxic haze hangs over the town resembling a gas chamber. The town’s population of more than 600,000 have been advised to stay indoors and use N95 masks if people venture outdoors.

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V.D. Satheesan, leader of the Congress-led opposition bloc United Democratic Front, urged the Kerala government to declare a health emergency since the landfill fire has created severe health problems for people.

Here’s what we know about the fire, the fumes, and the waste plant.

When did the landfill fire start?

The fire started at the Brahmapuram waste treatment plant in Kizhakkambalam in Ernakulam district on March 2. It took five days to bring the fire under control.

What’s the cause of the fire?

Fires occur every year at the waste plant due to the extreme heat at this time of the year, officials told the media. Sabotage is also suspected as several fires erupted simultaneously at several parts of the waste mountain. The Pollution Control Board chairman could not provide a satisfactory answer to the Kerala High Court.

How was the fire controlled?

Thirty fire tenders, two Navy helicopters and more than 120 fire force personnel were deployed to tackle the flames at the waste plant. Around 20 firefighting units from Bharat Petroleum, Fertilisers and Chemicals Travancore, Cochin Port Trust, and Cochin International Airport joined the operation.

Water from Kadambrayar (river) was used to fight the fires. Over 5,000 litres of water were sprayed in the active fire zones, which helped bring the fire under control.

How far has the smoke spread?

The toxic smoke spread up to 10km around Brahamapuram, creating fog-like conditions in Brahmapuram, Kakkanad, Tripunithura, Aroor, Vytilla and West Kochi areas.

How harmful are the fumes?

The particulates’ level in Kochi is above prescribed norms, according to the data on the Kerala Pollution Control Board website. The PM 2.5 and PM 10 levels were high. PM 2.5 is particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in diameter that can enter the lungs and the bloodstream. Its presence is 6-7 times higher than usual now, which can even cause heart attacks in high-risk patients.

Mild exposure can result in headache, fatigue, eye and throat irritation, chest tightness, and suffocation, Dr Mujeeb Rahman, consultant pulmonologist at Lakeshore Hospital, Nettoor, told the news portal The News Minute. He added that heavy exposure can lead to severe breathing difficulties, cough, and suffocation.

“Persons with allergies, patients undergoing treatment for other diseases including cardiac disease, asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD), stroke, as well as the elderly, pregnant women, and small children are at high risk from the smog, Dr Mujeeb said.

What are the common health problems reported?

The fumes caused breathing difficulties to residents and reduced visibility on the roads. At least 20 people, including the district fire officer, sought treatment after inhaling toxic fumes, including plastic smoke.

Asthma patients and the elderly were the most affected, and many sought medication. People who ventured out complained of a burning sensation in the eyes and breathing difficulties.

At least 20 fire force personnel developed breathing problems after battling the blaze. Some firefighters passed out after inhaling, media said, citing information from the local fire department.

State Health Minister Veena George advised older people, children, pregnant women and those with respiratory issues to avoid exposure to the smoke. No major health issues had been reported, she added.

Brahmapuram fire waste kochi kerala
Smoke billows after the massive fire is controlled at the Brahmapuram waste plant in Kochi, Kerala, in southern India on March 4, 2023. The fumes caused breathing difficulties to residents and reduced visibility on the roads. Image Credit: ANI

What did the residents do?

As the air pollution deteriorated severely, many residents moved out of their houses temporarily and took refuge in relatives’ homes, which are not in the haze zone. Some returned when the pollution levels improved.

What’s the waste plant?

The Brahmapuram waste treatment plant is spread over 110 acres on the banks of Kadambrayar in Puthankurish Panchayat of Ernakulam District. Residents in nearby areas say it’s more a waste dumping yard than a waste treatment plant since no waste is treated there.

The largest solid waste plant in Kerala, which became operational in 2008, was bought by the Kochi Corporation. The garbage from the city, five municipalities, and three panchayats is dumped at the site.

How much waste is recycled?

The waste plant receives about 100 metric tons of plastic waste each day, of which only about 1 per cent is suitable for recycling, according to a 2020 report from the International Urban Cooperation. The rest is dumped at the site, the study added.

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Why is the controversy surrounding the plant?

The fire at the waste plant was set “deliberately” to avoid inspection of the site, V.D. Satheesan, Kerala Opposition leader, alleged in the Kerala assembly on Monday. He said the term of one of the contractors, engaged to remove waste from the plant, was ending on March 3, and he had sought an extension.

“Before an extension, a site inspection is to be carried out. As the inspection would have revealed the lack of waste clearance operations, the fire was deliberately set to conceal the actual situation on the ground,” Satheesan claimed.

Every year, millions of rupees are spent on garbage collection, plant management, plastic sales, earthmoving, and other associated work. The contract to put soil on top of the buried waste also runs into millions, Malayalam daily Kerala Kaumudi reported. One person secured the contract to operate the plant for 12 consecutive years. A new company landed the contract last year and has set up a new plant.

What measures have been taken?

The Kerala government has formed a high-level committee to investigate the Brahmapuram fire.

The Kerala State Pollution Control Board has taken steps to prosecute the Kochi Corporation. It has slapped a show-cause notice on the civic body, asking it to pay 18 million rupees as a penalty for not adhering to Solid Waste Management Rules.

Classes for younger students in schools in Kochi city and neighbouring areas have been suspended from Monday.

The Kerala High Court wants the waste treatment plant to become functional by June 6.

What’s the fallout?

The Kerala government transferred Ernakulam Collector Dr Renu Raj to Wayanad on March 8. The transfer comes a day after the Kerala High Court expressed displeasure over Renu Raj’s absence from the hearing on a petition on the Brahmapuram fire incident.