x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Cause of landfill blaze 'still being investigated'

Dubai Municipality says it had safety measures in place and a well-equipped emergency response team, even though the fire burnt for two days before it was extinguished.

A bulldozer operator looks at the landfill blaze at Jebel Ali.
A bulldozer operator looks at the landfill blaze at Jebel Ali.

DUBAI // Investigators are trying to determine what caused a fire at a Jebel Ali landfill - the first blaze of its kind at the facility.

Dubai Municipality said it had safety measures in place and a well-equipped emergency response team, even though the fire burnt for two days before it was extinguished.

"The fire was at the difficult waste area where sewage treatment sludge was dumped," said Naji Alradhi, the head of the waste treatment section at the municipality's Waste Management Department. "It is the first time it happened since the Jebel Ali Hazardous Waste Treatment Facility opened in 1998.

"We are still investigating the cause. We first need to ascertain the cause to prevent such things in the future."

The site is used for three types of waste - hazardous waste, difficult waste such as used paint cans and general waste - which are kept separately.

It is the only disposal site for hazardous wastes in the emirate. Last year, about 156,000 tonnes of hazardous material - including medical and industrial material - was disposed there.

Mr Alradhi blamed the delay in extinguishing the fire, which began on May 4, on a lack of sand and equipment.

"There was no emergency stock of covering sand allocated for the area where the sewage sludge is dumped," he said.

Sludge from sewage treatment plants, which has already been treated, is dumped into the difficult waste section.

But Mr Alradhi said this waste "should not have caused any fire".

"It took time to bring the necessary quantity of sand," he added. "We always have a spare stock of sand at the general waste area.

"But this fire happened in the difficult waste area, which was unexpected.

"We also needed more equipment for putting off the fire. Bulldozers were brought to dig around the area to isolate it and contain the blaze, then extinguish the fire by covering it with sand."

Empty cans that had contained paint are usually placed in the difficult waste section. Mr Alradhi said the cans may have contained residues of paint, despite evaporation measures to ensure that flammable solvents do not remain.

The site is also believed to have contained oily sludge that might have contributed to the fire.

Containers at the site could be seen strewn between pools of oil, along with hundreds of boxes ripped open with what appeared to be insulation material inside.

Mr Alradhi said officials would wait for investigation reports before speculating on the cause of the fire.

When Civil Defence received calls from residents complaining of smoke, officials said they would not send firefighting crews because fires occasionally broke out in dumping grounds.

Glenn Platt, environmental manager for Keo International Consultants, said it was not uncommon for landfills to burn.

"Landfills are very hot places and fires most often start when one or two combustible chemicals come into contact with one another."

He said it was extremely difficult to put out landfill fires.

"The municipality did the best it could under the circumstances," he said, adding that it was not alarming for a fire in a landfill to smoulder underground for a couple of days before smoke came to the surface.

Workers used sand to extinguish the fire because digging out the burning debris would have exposed the fire to oxygen and it could have grown, he said.

"The cause could be anything from a discarded cigarette to people putting combustible things in the garbage," he added. "Due to the nature of landfills, it can be very difficult to detect underground fires.

"In colder climates, you can see steam come out but here you would most likely notice a burning smell."

Mr Platt said rubbish was usually dumped in landfills in a small area that is usually a maximum of two metres high.

It is then covered with a 300 millimetre layer of sand or soil. This process is then repeated.