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Perungudi: Flames Spread Downwards, Firefighters Battle Buried Plastic Waste

Deep pits of plastic have been acting as a barrier against water from fire engines, says a firefighter on the ground

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On Friday, 29 April, even as the third evening wore on since a massive fire broke out at the Perungudi landfill in Chennai, firefighters battled to completely douse the flames.

Plumes of smoke, which continued to billow from tall mounds of rubbish, remained visible from over a kilometre away.

A firefighter on the ground, who wished to remain anonymous, said the plastic waste buried at least 20 feet deep under these mounds was proving to be the main hurdle.

“The flames burn downwards, but the plastic forms a barrier, stopping water from seeping as deep as it needs to. The smoke is reducing visibility. It is hard to breathe. We are not able to wear smoke-masks for extended periods of time,” he said.

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A police personnel at the site pointed to a Bronto Skylift with a height of 104 m that has been brought in to aid the dousing of flames. “This is used in fire and rescue operations as well. Here, they are using it to sprinkle water from a height. It costs the state Rs 22 crore.”

The official, who did not want to be named, added that the summer heat, strong winds and methane pockets across the landfill had all played a role in the spreading of the fire.

According to officials, the fire is largely under control as of Saturday morning. The fire started around 12.30 pm on Wednesday, spreading rapidly across portions of the 225-acre landfill.

By Friday evening, the flames had been contained to about a kilometre, they said. Corporation officials at the site said they were hopeful about completely extinguishing the blaze in a day or two. However, the going has not been easy.

Unprecedented Fire, Cause Unknown

L Murugan, a contract worker for the city corporation, said the fire has made an already difficult job worse for him and other employees. “I have been a contract worker for 20 years, but I still have not been made permanent. Meanwhile, we have to assist the fire department with this massive blaze, climbing the huge mounds of waste without protection to help firefighters move the water pipes as far as they need them to go.”

Murugan and two other workers with him said they have been working without protective gear.

“There is no guarantee for our lives on this job. There is also no assurance that if we die, someone else in our families will get employment.”
L Murugan

Murugan added that he had been assisting fire fighters throughout his shift, which starts at 2 pm and goes on till 10 pm. “Until the workers on the next shift arrived, I had to stay and help.”

Murugan told The News Minute that he has been working at the Perungudi landfill for five years. “During that time, I haven’t seen anything this bad. I have heard from workers who have been here for longer that the fires here are typically much smaller and easily contained. Usually, they just bring a vehicle like a JCB and cover it up,” he added.

Until Saturday morning, there was no clarity on how exactly the fire had started, but speculations have been rife.

The evening before, a security guard, Likuna Kumar Swain, had claimed that waste from a factory operating from within the landfill was to blame. Murugan and the other workers too were of the opinion that sawdust from a door-making factory on the site was the cause. A report by The Hindu stated that dried coconut husks had caught fire in the heat.

Residents’ woes

Chitra, who runs a petty shop in Selva Ganapathy Avenue at the entrance of the landfill, told TNM, “The smoke over the past two days has been terrible. Our kids are struggling. It is hard to breathe. Though fires keep breaking out at the landfill now and then, this is the first time it has been this bad. Many people who live close by have temporarily moved away. The smoke has been entering our homes and there is a strong smell of burning hanging in the air always,” she said.

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Another resident, Ajitha, told TNM that people living in the vicinity of the landfill have been suffering from skin issues, breathing problems and a host of other medical concerns.

“Many of us are wheezing, particularly the children. After we raised a complaint regarding this at the panchayat board last year, the waste-dumping was moved further in. The rainy seasons are the worst. The stench is so bad that you can barely stay indoors. Besides, vegetable and fruit waste from the Koyambedu market is brought in early in the morning. Because of the putrefied waste smell, we cannot even open our doors. We have been facing mosquito and fly problems as well. The last three days have made the situation much worse,” she said.

Some other residents chipped in that they simply wanted waste dumping at the Perungudi landfill to stop. “The areas around us keep developing, but our problems persist,” they said.

(Published in an arrangement with The News Minute.)

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