Headline — 07 September 2019 — by Rowland A. Parks
Polluted New River forces school’s closure

La Inmaculada School students cannot bear stench of the river; it will take years for the river to recover, says Chief Environmental Officer

BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Sept. 5, 2019– For several weeks now, as the country continues to be affected by a severe drought, attention has been focused on the New River, which has become loaded with chemicals and pollutants that have caused tons of fish to die, leaving a putrid smell around various areas of the river in the Orange Walk District.

The Department of the Environment (DOE) has confirmed that there is no one entity that is responsible for the tragic state of the New River. Furthermore, no one has suffered any penalty for polluting the river, because the DOE relies on the voluntary compliance of the ASR/BSI, the largest industry which uses the river in its operations.

The pollution in the New River continues to be an economic nightmare in the Orange Walk District, where the residents depend on the river for their very livelihood. The tourism industry has taken a major hit because of the polluted state of the river. Things have reached the point where businesses have begun to downsize their staff.

Apart from the direct economic hit that Orange Walk residents are experiencing, there has been a social impact as well this week, when La Inmaculada Primary School, located near the banks of the river, had to close its doors during this first week of the new school year.

The school was forced to close because the stench emanating from the river became unbearable for the students. The Orange Walk Town Council provided masks for the students, but that proved not to be enough for them to continue in classes.

The Department of the Environment has attempted a clean-up around the school in an effort to have the children return to classes by Monday. The school has been closed since yesterday, Wednesday.

Government’s Chief Environmental Officer, Martin Alegria, is quoted by 7News as saying that it will take years to get rid of the pollutants in the New River.

Alegria said that they were doing some desktop exercises and gathering funds to address the issues affecting the river.

“One of them is the cleaning up of those dead fish smelling, that’s causing the stench. That’s the first action. That should begin today or so through private sector assistance, but we have the funds for that. Then we are doing, hopefully by Friday, desktop exercise using Google Earth and so on to see where the key areas are … and of course, we have the long term component. The long term, meaning next year, 2 years, 5 years from now. We need to have an action plan related specifically to the New River, with all players: agricultural sector, tourism sector, local government, town board and government entities, so that we all have a common program which we are planning to develop and then having a financial sustainability plan to implement so that what happened this year, does not repeat itself,” Alegria said

“What we have seen this year has been occurring over the past 10-15 years. It’s just that because of the heat, drought and the temperature of the water, it just exasperated it,” he said.

Alegria was asked why wasn’t anything done throughout all those years.

“People like to target BSI, but that is one of the companies we have been working with over 10 years to minimize the potential damage to the river in that section, and so for the past 3 years, we have an action plan for the next 5 years. So two and a half years have gone, where they have reduced their outflow in terms of concentrations and so on. They have built ponds, treatment systems; they have addressed the water temperature from their boilers … pollution has been there for 40-50 years. It will take a lot of time and money to deal with what is out there; the pollutant is already in the system,” said Alegria

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