Panamanian gov’t takes control of dump considered an environmental disaster

Panama City, Mar 27 (EFE).- The Panamanian government on Monday took temporary control of the country’s largest dump, considered to be an environmental disaster, amid a wave of accusations against the facility’s operator, Urbalia, which is being blamed for $100 million worth of environmental damage.

The Cerro Patacon open-air dump, located on the outskirts of the Panamanian capital, receives more than 40 percent of all the trash and garbage generated in the country of 4.4 million people, according to official figures.

“Starting today, the government – via the Cleaning Authority, took over the operations at Cerro Patacon,” said Environment Minister Milciades Concepcion, who rejected the company’s version that its operating contract did not end at midnight on Sunday but rather, due to an addendum, will do so in nine months.

Concepcion also discussed accusations that have been leveled at the government regarding its alleged improvised handling of the matter, as well as doubts that the Urban and Home Cleaning Authority (AAUD) is able to operate the landfill when its work, which is collection of waste, is one of the most deficient in the public administration and keeps Panama City subject to periodic crises where garbage piles up on the streets.

“We’re not improvising. We have an action plan that every institution is carrying out. The Cleaning Authority is not alone. All the institutions and the ministry are converging on this, to deal with this decision by the government,” she said.

The AAUD’s deputy general administrator, Rafael Prado de Obaldia, told EFE that the institution “is able to operate the dump,” and that on Monday a working plan was implemented to do so.

In that regard, Concepcion said that the AAUD “is going to coordinate the work” at the dump “for a couple of months” while a company is located that will operate it on a transition basis for a couple of months until “we can finalize the terms regarding a much broader contract so that a firm can manage the dump as Panama deserves, with technology.”

Concepcion said that the poor management of the dump over the past 15 years by Urbalia, the owner of Colombia’s Interaseo, has created environmental damage valued at $100 million.

“This environmental disaster will cost $100 million to mitigate and they (Urbalia) have to pay it and they’re not talking about that. We’re preparing for them to be responsible for the environmental damage due to the … irresponsible management” of the facility, she added.

In January 2022, the head of the Ombudsman’s Office, Eduardo Leblanc, filed a criminal lawsuit against Urbalia in which he asked the Attorney General’s Office to investigate “repetitive” facts, including uncontrolled fires and garbage landslides in an oxidation vat, as well as the dump’s possible effects on the groundwater and rivers of the nearby Panama Canal Basin.

Leblanc said that it was unheard of that Urbalia continued to operate the landfill despite having “89 administrative procedures” against it.

The dump covers more than 130 hectares (some 325 acres), but its toxic impact extends to some 9,000 hectares (22,500 acres), according to environmental studies. Several capital neighborhoods located three or four kilometers (1.85 to 2.5 miles) from it have been affected by smells or smoke and ash from waste burning, according to the official report.

Concepcion revealed on Monday that last week “another administrative process” was opened against Urbalia “and (the firm’s) operations were suspended as a precaution.”

“Urbalia today is doubly stopped – first, due to the expiration of the contract and, second, because the Environment Ministry shut down its operations due to repeated environmental breaches. They have never complied with the contract in terms of environmental standards,” she added.

Urbalia’s attorneys maintain that the state owes the firm $26 million and that the company has never obtained the necessary support from the Cleaning Authority.

EFE –/bp

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