Monday, February 19, 2007

More Smelter Controversy

by William Lucie-Smith
Trinidad Express
February 19, 2007

I have not commented on the many smelter controversies because I really don't know enough about the subject. And that's at the heart of my problem. After all this controversy and debate shouldn't we all know enough to form an informed opinion?

In my simplistic mind there are only two key issues to discuss and determine. The first is the environment and health issue. Will smelters cause a significant environmental and health risk in a small island like Trinidad, such that we should not include this industry in our industrialisation plans? Subsidiary to that issue is the decision about location once it is determined that the industry is safe.

The second key issue is economic. Does the industry provide Trinidad and Tobago sufficiently attractive returns that it should be part of our industrialisation programme and utilise our scarce and wasting energy reserves?

Surprisingly, despite all the debate, I don't have a clear idea about either issue. In the first place it seemed premature to me that before there was any real consultation the Government had already announced there would be two and possibly three smelter plants. This suggests that the Government had already evaluated both the above key issues and decided in the affirmative. It further had decided on the appropriate locations in La Brea and Chatham. However, having made these determinations there appeared to be a complete lack of consultation or even public justification for the decisions.

In the first place the appropriate agency to determine the environment and health issues would appear to be the Environmental Management Authority. But just as work started at Tarouba before the EMA gave consent, so a Government determination appears to have been made in the environmental issues even before applications have been made to the EMA.

Now I understand smelter plants have been built all around the world by Alcoa and they say that these have been well accepted in the communities. This includes Australia which is a very environmentally conscious country and not a Third World victim (but will we insist on the same standards?). Equally there are horror stories about environmental damage and health risks.

Both sides of the debate are now so committed and emotional that we really can trust neither to give us an impartial opinion. We certainly can't trust the Government, who have become so committed to smelters that they have linked opposition to the project to drug lords. That red herring is quite irrelevant to the smelter debate.

So what I need is an impartial assessment of the smelter industry telling me conclusively whether it should be allowed in Trinidad at all. Shouldn't the EMA do this for us? And while at it, could they also publish the framework in which smelting could be allowed if their answer is that it is not a banned industry (e.g. buffer zones). It would also be useful to have similar guidelines for cell phone towers. Should I panic if I see one within 200 yards of my house or are they harmless? I don't know and need guidance from an independent authority.

I hope future governments learn from this debacle. They should not commit to projects before the appropriate agencies have approved plans through due process. The Government may query the motives of the opponents but it is equally fair for opponents to query the motives of the Government. Why is the Government championing the cause of a foreign investor to such an extent that it appears that it is their project? Indeed if the EMA turned down the plans would the Government find itself in breach of obligations to Alcoa because of premature promises? Is the EMA now subject to undue pressure?

The second issue of economic benefit is essentially very straightforward. What's in it for us? With an overheated job market and construction at full capacity the creating jobs arguments don't wash.

All our gas production is fully utilised or can be sold elsewhere, so this project must compete with others and show a better return. As public resources are involved it is essential that we are convinced that the resources utilised (energy and land) are the optimal available usage. This requires an economic rationale that has yet to be published.

What we have had is a simple assertion that it's a good deal for us. It would be nice, too, if we could get some independent comfort that all the terms of these projects are in our best interests. I wonder how many others out there, like me, just don't know.


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