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US professor warns of the dangers of aerating the New River

While local officials are working at resolving the issue at the New River, the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO) has expressed serious concerns over the solution to aerate the water.  BELPO sent us a correspondence saying that they have been in contact with Dr. Guy Lanza, a Research Professor at the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology (ESF), State University of New York.
In the past, he has provided consultation to BELPO, on the Chalillo Dam and Macal River in Belize. He spoke with Love News and simplified the matter of the river’s pollution.

Dr.Guy Lanza, Research Professor, State University of New York: “The river as it exists now apparently has been receiving large quantities of untreated effluent probably from a sugar factory as well as some other runoff sources and so the problem is that when these materials from the sugar factory which have a lot of organic matter stuff that bacteria can break down, when this material gets into the water it removes oxygen at a very very fast rate and once the oxygen is removed from the water it causes problems with the organisms living in the water and it also causes problems with what we call legacy pollutants, pollutants that have been stored down in the bottom muds or sediments and are more or less trapped there and under normal healthy conditions they stay there but when the river receives a lot of effluent from sugar or other organic material the bacterial suck the oxygen out of the water and the sediment breaks down and releases those contaminants up until the water column itself. So apparently the reason for the problem is clearly because someone didn’t enforce, DOE, didn’t enforce the effluent guidelines. When you have an operation like a sugar factory releasing large quantity of effluent thats not treated directly into the river you can pretty much be sure you’re going to remove all of the oxygen in the water over a period of time and therefore the sediments are gonna start to release their contaminates.” 

While local officials are only doing the aeration as a pilot project at the river’s upstream, Doctor Lanza noted that this method should be a “last ditch effort”.  He outlines the dangers posed by the aeration method.

Dr.Guy Lanza, Research Professor, State University of New York: “My understanding is that their approach to fixing this problem is to go in with aerators and aerate the water, in other words they want to artificially put oxygen back into the water to replace the oxygen that the sugar plant effluent has removed. That’s problematic because when you do that you’re going to stir up sediments and when you stir up sediments those pollutants and bacteria that are trapped are going to be released up into the water column, they will immediately affect fish and other aquatic organisms living in the water, they will make those pollutants, toxic materials available to people in contact with the water, their pets, livestock so it’s just not a good situation to simply go in and aerate without really doing some sediment testing ahead of time to see what in those sediments is going to be released and what the health effects are going to be in the process of the release after aeration. Hydrogen sulfide is one of several gases that tend to be concentrated in the sediments and so it’s one of these toxins that I’m talking about, one of many, that will be released if you just simply go in with an aerator and bubble in a lot of oxygen to aerate the water. Hydrogen sulfide is something you don’t want to breathe, it’s a very toxic gas, you don’t want people or animals or pets or livestock, you don’t want any organisms breathing hydrogen sulfide, it’s not a good thing it’s clearly a toxic gas that you shouldn’t be inhaling.”

While residents in the immediate area of the New River are forced to tolerate the smell and sight, the reality is that there is no quick fix to the problem.  According to Doctor Lanza, officials need to start by eliminating current unhealthy practices.

Dr.Guy Lanza, Research Professor, State University of New York: “If the sediments are highly contaminated with things other than hydrogen sulfide then what they’re gonna have to do is go and dredge those sediments out very carefully using the proper dredging techniques and remove them from the river and then take them off to a landfill site so that it can be deposited, isolated so they don’t leak out and leech into those problems later. So they’re gonna have to remove those sediments by physically dredging, dig them up and get them out of there, very expensive, very time consuming and very complicated, it’s a major engineering project. It’s always very expensive and complicated to clean up a mess like this after the fact and it’s unfortunate since it could be prevented by simply enforcing the environmental laws in the first place. It’s sort of like a lot of other environmental issues the first step is to stop adding the materials that are the cause of the problem. So again they need to stop releasing the effluent from the sugar production facility. Now that’s a legitimate business I’m sure there are ways in which you can do what they’re doing without destroying rivers. You simply have to treat the releases before they go into the river and that’s the cost of doing business. It’s a little more expensive than not doing anything at all but the cost of doing business is what’s necessary to protect the environment.”
In an email to BELPO, Dr Lanza explains that apart from hydrogen sulfide, the disruption of the sediments could release other toxic elements such as arsenic, zinc, cadmium, lead, and more, including greenhouse gases such as methane.