Highlights — 24 January 2014 — by Adele Ramos
“A lot of problems” with Norwegian’s Harvest Caye EIA

EIA public consultation held Wednesday night in Independence

The US$100 million Stake Bank Cruise Docking Facility, which has received environmental clearance, is expected to proceed imminently after Parliament yesterday received a proposal for a 20-year development concession in the form of the Stake Bank Cruise Docking Facility Development Bill, 2014.

Meanwhile, the US$50 million Harvest Caye destination island proposed by Norwegian Cruise Line for southern Belize is still under the lens, with the public consultation for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) held Wednesday night in Independence.

“The EIA was just disastrous…” said a businessman, who supports the project conceptually.

The concerned citizen told us that while the majority of the people who attended the hearing want to see something happening in the south, they want to make sure it is within the framework of a good EIA and is a good project, beneficial to Belizeans. People are skeptical and think everything is a conspiracy, so it is important that the concerns are properly addressed, he indicated.

Amandala is informed that between 200 and 300 people attended that hearing, and while most people sat as observers, those who were vocal had many questions, including questions over how the cruise line would dispose of the silt derived from the dredging it expects to carry out this year as a part of the development.

Some attendees were stunned that one of the proposed means of disposal is pumping the silt into the sea – particularly as this method could put Belize’s marine ecosystem, the fisheries resources and our world-famous barrier reef, at risk.

An official source told our newspaper that the Department of the Environment will continue to accept public feedback on the project for another week or so, after which the National Environmental Appraisal Committee is expected to meet. However, early indications to our newspaper are that Norwegian will be asked to make some substantial adjustments to its EIA, in order to address the environmental concerns that have been expressed.

Amandala understands that both Rodwell Ferguson, the People United Party’s area representative for Stann Creek West, and his predecessor, Melvin Hulse, former Stann Creek West area rep for the United Democratic Party, were there and both supported the Harvest Caye project – provided that the social benefits promised would be realized.

Some are concerned about whether the project will give Belizeans “donkey work” rather than meaningful entrepreneurial opportunities.

Reports to our newspaper are that Norwegian, in line with a promise made last year, is moving to hire 250 Belizeans, who they hope to begin to put to work on February 1, 2014, and those persons would be given first priority to work at the Belize project, after they have received two years of experience on Norwegian ships.

One attendee we spoke with said that there are “a lot of problems with the EIA…” which was hundreds of pages long and very technical.

However, as we had previously reported, the EIA in question is merely an adaptation of an old EIA that had been done for a tourism development which had been planned for the same location. The Norwegian EIA reviewed last night even lists George Murray, who has been dead for 5 years, as the chairman of Independence Village.

At the hearing, questions were raised over how the project would source water for use at the facility, and a number of suggestions were laid out, including the drilling of wells for water, capturing rain water, a desalination plant and sourcing water from the Independence area.

The concern with the last proposal is the risk of overuse of the aquifer, which supplies Placencia, Big Creek and Independence, and that no research has been done to verify how large the water source is, and whether further exploitation could lead to salt water penetration into the water source.

There was also concern raised over an extensive floating dock, proposed as a part of the project, and concerns that it would be more than three times the 300 feet customarily allowed for such developments.

While there were structural concerns expressed, there were also pressing economic matters raised: Locals don’t want Norwegian to monopolize the tendering process through which cruise tourists are shuttled from ship to shore. One local business questioned whether locals would be allowed to shuttle tourists to the mainland, but was told that Norwegian would have special shallow draft tenders which they will import to shuttle people, and if locals are willing to buy those tenders, Norwegian would consider that.

Locals also questioned whether passengers using that port would be able to book tours with independent tour operators, and the concern is that Norwegian will control this dimension of the project as well.

Steward Krohn, a hotelier in the area and a vocal member of the Placencia arm of the Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA), is adamant that “the project itself is just a bad project.” Krohn said that he would be shocked if NEAC would approve the EIA in its present form.

He pointed to concerns raised by Jolie Pollard, BTIA-Placencia executive director, over the sharing of the head tax – US$4 of the US$7 going back to the cruise line – a formula which would evidently mean that Norwegian would recoup its entire investment within 20 years – so the question is, what would they be giving to Belize when Belize would be giving them back all they invest via the head tax split?

It’s like if a slave master gives you a bill for room and board, because he put you up in a shack, Krohn said.

He expressed the view that there needs to be a more thorough EIA, which would provide better data and a more definite statement of what their plans are, and once that revision happens, the EIA should again be presented at a new public hearing.

Krohn said that it appears that Government is “in way too big a hurry…” to push the project ahead.

In related news, Amandala has received reliable information that the project by Blue Water International to farm red drum fish off the coast of Belize City, which we reported on about a week ago, has been approved and an Environmental Compliance Plan is being prepared.

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