Thursday, April 05, 2007

Not breathing easy

April 5, 2007
Politically speaking, the granting of a Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) to Alutrint was badly timed. The announcement by the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) came mere hours after environmentalists met with Prime Minister Patrick Manning and the Cabinet’s Energy Committee to present their case against smelters. To get this announcement right after their meeting must make the environmentalists believe that the Government only wanted a basis for claiming that “consultations” had taken place.

The EMA’s already unimpressive reputation is also going to take a hit from this decision. This is not to say that the EMA did not have good grounds for giving Alutrint the green light to build its plant at La Brea. But the Authority now faces the challenge of making clear to the public the basis on which it has decided that pollutants from Alutrint, according to EMA chairman Dave MacIntosh, pose no threats to human beings or the environment. Indeed, in making the announcement, Mr MacIntosh showed he was aware of this challenge, emphasising that Alutrint would be shut down if it did not conform to the environmental guidelines set by the EMA and that the Government had not pressured the EMA to grant the CEC.

This latter assertion is already being scoffed at by environmentalists. Respected scientist Professor Julian Kenny went so far as to question the impartiality of the EMA Board which, he says, includes PNM Deputy Political Leader Nafeesa Mohammed. “The Government puts people who will give the appearance of professionalism and independence but who are political appointments who will do whatever the Government says,” Professor Kenny told Newsday.

Mr MacIntosh will have to refute Professor Kenny’s assertion, but the chairman has already stumbled in claiming that the Government was not pressuring the EMA. After all, Prime Minister Patrick Manning has made it clear in various public statements that he is set on having two — maybe three — aluminium smelters set up in Trinidad and Tobago. Given this country’s political culture, we find it unlikely that, if the Prime Minister can send such a message publicly, even more pressure would not have been brought to bear behind closed doors.

The EMA will also have to deal with the legal issues raised by Professor Kenny — to wit, that the Alutrint CEC breaches the Town and Country Planning Act. If this is so, it will strengthen the perception that the EMA is nothing more than a public relations tool for the Government. If it is not, however, then the EMA will be able to show that the environmental lobby is not treating with the issue in a fair manner. Yet, even if the EMA is given the benefit of doubt and it turns out that there were good grounds for granting the CEC, the issue of monitoring remains problematical. Is the Authority really going to ensure that Alutrinadheres to the reportedly strict standards imposed by the EMA? Would the EMA really defy the Prime Minister and shut down the plant if it didn’t?

The fact is, there is nothing in the EMA’s record which shows it is capable of such efficiency or even gumption. After all, since the Authority was set up, there has been no noticeable improvement in the environment of this country. It is also noteworthy that in its 15 years of existence the EMA has not commissioned an air quality or population health survey of the Point Lisas Industrial Estate and its environs. We hope the Authority will do better in respect to the smelters, but we are not holding our breath — although the residents of La Brea may have to.


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