Hazardous waste gets special treatment

All dangerous waste from Abu Dhabi is to be sent to a single plant 70km from the capital, avoiding old, potentially leaky landfills.

ABU DHABI. 17th July 2008. LAND FILL SITE. Hazardous waste area at the Maqatra land fill site  between Abu Dhabi and Hmeem. Stephen Lock  /  The National.  *** Local Caption ***  SL-rubbish-017.jpgSL-rubbish-017.jpg

ABU DHABI // Toxic, corrosive and highly volatile waste materials generated in Abu Dhabi from sources as wide-ranging as batteries, pesticides and solvents will be disposed of at a specialised plant outside the capital, a top waste-disposal official said.

The Center of Waste Management-Abu Dhabi has "almost agreed" with a private company on a contract to design and build a hazardous-waste facility with a capacity of 15,000 tonnes per year, said Nabil al Mudalal, a senior engineer at the centre. The plan must be reviewed by the Executive Council, said Mr al Mudalal, who declined to name the private company being considered. The capital's hazardous waste, with the exception of material from Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (Adnoc), which is treated internally, currently goes to landfills that are not designed to hold it. This allows harmful chemicals to leach into the soil and threaten groundwater, experts say.

Mr al Mudalal said the centre is "trying to control" the waste in the old landfills "as much as possible." But, he said, the issue would be resolved once the new, specially designed facility comes online; all of the emirate's hazardous waste would go to the new facility. The plant will be 70km from the capital, in Al Dhafra, and about 12km from the Al Dhafra landfill, the emirate's biggest depository for waste from households, construction sites, hospitals and industry.

"It is a very hi-tech solution," Mr al Mudalal said of the facility, which will have its own laboratory. Dr G Fred Lee, a former US-based professor who taught graduate level environmental engineering and environmental science courses, said if hazardous materials are deposited at a landfill without protection features, pollution will result. "There is no question there is going to be leakage," Dr Lee said. "The question is how far these chemicals will travel."

The spread of water pollution depends on the area's soil and geology, he said. Sandy soil, which exists in many parts of the country, is particularly susceptible to seepage. Some airborne hazardous chemicals, such as many solvents, are carcinogenic. A particular concern are volatile organic compounds. Such compounds are present in products such as paints and lacquers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, furnishings and office equipment. Areas downwind from dump sites where such materials had been deposited have experienced "increased incidence of cancer", Dr Lee said.

The amount of hazardous waste in the emirate is not known. The State of the Environment Report, released by the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi in 2007, estimated the waste generated by Abu Dhabi's non-oil-industry sources in 2004 was between 6,000 and 12,000 tonnes. The amount is expected to reach 22,000 tonnes in 2015 unless current practices are changed. "Currently, solid hazardous wastes are mostly deposited in landfills, although some are illegally dumped," the document said. "Waste and its management contribute to a number of environmental problems, for example, emissions of greenhouse gases, heavy metals and other environmentally hazardous chemicals.

"If not properly handled, landfills leak and contaminate groundwater, gases evaporate and contribute to global climate change, and toxic fumes escape and threaten the health of people." Last year, the Center of Waste Management announced a plan to rehabilitate six landfill sites deemed the highest risks in terms of the environment and public health. But the project has been delayed until a hazardous waste facility is up and running, Mr al Mudalal said.

"Before we close the existing sites, we have to have an alternative," he said. "This is the thing we are waiting for." The centre is also developing an electronic system that will show precisely how much and what kind of hazardous waste is generated in Abu Dhabi. "It is not only about building a plant. We are making a whole system," he said. "The vision is to bring all relevant companies under one system."

The electronic registry and tracking system will take three to four months to complete. It is expected that as many as 1,000 service providers will register. Companies in the field will be required to register with the centre and submit information about the types and quantities of waste they handle. This will provide a reliable figure of how much hazardous waste is generated in Abu Dhabi. There are currently no statistics on the subject.