4 feared dead in trash avalanche

Landfill firm has admitted liability, says police chief

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A PANORAMIC view of the Rizal Provincial Sanitary Landfill, where four workers are feared buried alive on Friday. ROMY HOMILLADA

Rescuers were racing against time as they searched for four landfill workers believed to have been buried alive in a mountain of trash that collapsed Friday afternoon in Rodriguez, Rizal province.

Teams composed of policemen, soldiers and personnel from the local disaster office continued the search on Saturday, although the  “unstable” ground and the poor mobile-phone signal in the area were slowing down the rescuers, said Vicente Tomazar, the director of the Calabarzon Disaster Risk Reduction and Management  Council.

“We believe there are still chances for them to survive within 24 hours. Let’s just hope and pray (we could still find them),” Tomazar said. “We met with the families (of the four) and explained to them why we have  to do it cautiously. The company also extended financial help to them although this does not mean we are giving up hopes that they are still  alive.”

Rodriguez police chief Supt. Arthur Masungsong and Ricardo Badella, an officer of the landfill operator International Swims Corp., headed the  search team, said Tomazar.

Backhoe operator Gary Balahibo and maintenance personnel Pablito Esto,  Rovidico Olod and Eddie Malano were feared buried under mounds of garbage, following a trash slide that occurred at around 4 p.m. on Friday.

Before the avalanche, the four workers earlier received orders to clear trash in a canal to allow water to flow freely to a treatment facility, Masungsong said.

Tomazar said a heavy downpour two hours before the incident might have triggered the avalanche that covered a hectare in the almost 19-hectare  sanitary landfill.

The Rizal Provincial Sanitary Landfill, located in the upland Barangay San  Isidro, is wholly owned and operated by International Swims. It was opened by the provincial government in 2007, following the closure of the nearby Montalban landfill by Rizal Gov. Casimiro Ynares III, who then cited safety concerns.

The question as to who should operate the sites caused a conflict between Ynares and then Rodriguez Mayor Pedro Cuerpo. Then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had to step in to mediate between the two.

The landfill receives a daily average of 3,500 tons of garbage from Metro Manila.

“Individual digging (by use of shovels) is not advisable so we had to use backhoes and heavy equipment. But even with those, we could not fast-track  the search because the ground was so unstable it might trigger another  trash slide. (Cell-phone) signal in the area is also very poor,” Tomazar  said.

He said the search, which had to be stopped during nighttime because of the risks it posed to rescuers, may last for another two to three days.

Masungsong also explained that “we can’t stay for more than an hour in the area because the gas makes us dizzy.”

The police official said International Swims had owned up to its “moral and legal liability” and that its officials could face charges for reckless imprudence.

“We are prepared to assist the relatives (in pressing charges) but no one has come forward yet,” he added.

Girly Singson, information officer of the Rodriguez municipal government, said Mayor Cecilio Hernandez had ordered a thorough investigation and asked International Swims to “address the situation.”

In July 2000, a similar avalanche in an open dump in Quezon City killed more than 200 people and buried thousands of homes. (See “What Went Before”)

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