Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Another way to manage our environment

by Prof Julian Kenny
Trinidad Express
April 10, 2007

"The task the EMA will now face...is one of monitoring and understanding what the baseline conditions are, so we can examine any shifts in terms of the human health of the area or impacts on vegetation and wildlife."

EMA official release

The headline of the story in the Sunday Express of April 1 stated bluntly - "Tiny blind animal halts $b Aussie mine". No it was not an April 1 joke. But it certainly illustrates the differences between us and the Australians. A tiny cave dwelling arachnid is the grain of sand in the machinery. The species, or I should say the few species involved, are relics of a group that once lived in rainforests in Australia, forests that dried out in time, and have retreated into cave environments and continued to evolve, feeding on organic matter underground. These tiny creatures measuring a few millimetres are now eyeless.

The thing is that Rio Tinto wants to develop a $12 billion iron ore mine in the environment occupied by these creatures and the creatures are in the way. Australia has an Environmental Protection Agency and the EPA's Chairman has ruled, on behalf of the EPA, that the mining proposal is environmentally unacceptable. The EPA's ground for rejection? The Environment Impact Assessment studies, conducted by the company, discovered five new species of these creatures unique to the proposed mining site. Of course, Australia has the appropriate legal and institutional mechanisms that permit appeals or resolution of the problem. While the EPA makes a decision on scientific grounds, the minister in the end may make the final decision, taking into account social and economic factors, as well as political risks. There the matter rests for the time. Conflicts of this kind are relatively common in the developed world - an owl, or salamander or fish standing in the way of "development".

We, on our way to developed country status by 2020, also have an agency that is charged with "managing" the environment. That body, the Environmental Management Authority, was established during the first Manningadministration, as a conditionality of a World Bank loan for business expansion (and don't be fooled into thinking otherwise). Note that its name is "authority", not "agency". For the first few years the Authority was powerless, in the absence of the Environmental Commission. Many hoped that the Authority would be independent of political influence and would make decisions on technical grounds, more or less like the Australian EPA.

Of course, it was only a hope. Although members of the EMA were "appointed" by the President, who signed their instruments, they were Cabinet appointments, like any other board appointment.

The first stumble of the Board was the celebrated case of the CEC application by Talisman to conduct a 3D seismic survey at the edge of the Nariva Swamp. The application was rejected outright without giving a hearing to the company - the wetland lobby. The Company's appeal to the Commission was allowed, without hearing any technical arguments, supporting the rights of the company to a hearing, and the irrelevance in domestic law to the Ramsar Convention and the National Wetlands Policy. Eventually Talisman successfully conducted its 3D seismic survey.

Ironically, the EMA could have used the same approach of outright rejection of the NEC application for land clearing for an industrial estate at Union Estate, but on stronger legal grounds, that of the National Physical Development Plan adopted by Parliament in 1984. The Australian EPA would have done so and left it to the politicians to make the decision. In the plan Union Estate was designated for agriculture and intensive agriculture while Point Fortin was a growth centre. The NEC could then have appealed to the Commission. But no, a CEC was granted for clearing about 800 acres of mixed agriculture and forested lands with three artificial lakes and the lunar landscape is now to be the site of the Alutrint smelter. And the citizens of Union Village have had to endure in these past two years noise and dust, and the on again off again resettlement of their village. As I suggested earlier the NEC and the EMA are really provoking citizens. I hazard a guess that the anti-smelter groups will now more than likely take legal action for judicial review of the EMA's decision.

The grounds? Amongst others, original failure to take into account the approved National Physical Development Plan; deciding to conduct baseline environment studies as smelter construction progresses; deciding the matter in the absence parliamentary approved air pollution standards and rules; failure to show confirmation that the United States has agreed to accept spent pot liners in accordance with the Basel Convention; failure to show that our neighbours have agreed to shipment of hazardous wastes through their waters.

And now the EMA will monitor the effects of the smelter on the vegetation and wildlife of the area, 800 acres of which have already been cleared of vegetation and wildlife with EMA approval.


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