Canadian-owned dam shocks Belize River with discharges, threatens river ecology

Brady Yauch
Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Chalillo Dam on the Macal River in Belize is facing renewed criticism after a local watchdog group released photographs that show the dam is discharging discoloured orange-brown sediment-laden water, polluting downstream users and threatening the river's ecology and ocean reefs where it empties into the Caribbean Sea.

The Belize Electric Company Limited (BECOL), the owner and operator of the dam, which is owned by the Newfoundland-based power company, Fortis, blames the discoloured water on upstream activity.  According to BECOL President of Operations, Steven Usher, unregulated deforestation and Guatemalans who steal into Belize to cut xate palms for sale to the flower business have exposed the forest soils—which then get washed into the river during storms and floods.

Candy Gonzalez, President of the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO), which released the aerial photos, doesn’t buy it.  She says that the photos show the water going into the dam’s reservoir is clear, while the water discharged from the dam is an orange-brown colour. 

According to Gonzalez, the photos show that the problem does not come from the rains, run-off from the Mountain Pine Ridge or farmers—which are downstream of the dam or Guatemalans who are in a different watershed altogether.

Rather, says Gonzalez and other experts, the photos show that the dam is the source of the contaminated water: it is the shock discharge of the accumulated sediment from behind the dam that is causing the problem.

BECOL’s Steven Usher admits that they are discharging the reservoir’s contents through a valve at the base of the dam, but claims that this is routine “for power generation or to meet our environmental requirements.” Dr.  Guy Lanza, Professor of Microbiology and the Director of the Environmental Science Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst has condemned the flushing in a memo to BELPO, calling the “release of sediments with severe turbidity contaminants” from the Chalillo dam “inexcusable.” Moreover, he says, it “poses immediate risks to human health, livestock health, and the ecology of the Macal, Mopan, and Belize rivers.” The cause of the problem is clear, he says.  “The extremely high water turbidity clearly evident in the photographs of the sediment contamination are the result of both organic and inorganic sediment material including silts and clays released from the dam gates to the Macal River.” The clay material is especially worrisome, Dr.  Lanza says, because it creates “colloidal suspensions” that will not readily settle and “will remain an environmental problem for an extended period producing negative effects on humans and livestock and harmful ecological effects on the rivers receiving the turbidity contaminants.” According to Dr.  Lanza, the level of turbidity in the water is hundreds, if not thousands, of times higher than the standards set by the World Health Organization and the U.S.  Environmental Protection Agency.

Turbidity contaminants are particularly dangerous, says Dr.  Lanza, because they hide disease-causing waterborne microbes (bacteria, viruses, protozoa) and interfere with the effectiveness of disinfection chemicals (such as chlorine) used to purify the water for drinking purposes.

The river ecology will also suffer, says Dr.  Lanza, because the high turbidity blocks light entering the river which kills off the photosynthesizing river plants and deprives the river of oxygen—which then kills fish and other aquatic life.  The abrasive effect of the suspended materials on fish and other biota – a sort of “wet sandblasting” says Dr.  Lanza – is also cause for concern.

According to local newspaper reports, especially worrying is Dr.  Lanza’s assessment that the water is not safe to drink and is impossible to purify.  He recommends “immediate action … to halt the release of additional sediments from the Chalillo dam, and to quickly respond with appropriate remediation strategies to reduce the threats to humans, livestock, and the Macal, Mopan and Belize river ecosystems.” There have been reports recently that residents in the area are suffering from skin rashes, vomiting and diarrhoea.  Local doctors are telling their patients to avoid using water from the river for cleaning or cooking.

The Chalillo dam has been contentious ever since it was brought online in November 2005—after a five-year, international campaign to stop it.  Environmental groups sought protection for the area’s diverse wildlife and local villages.  Upon completion, the dam was $9-million over budget and has since caused electricity rates to rise.

Environmental groups have long accused Fortis of protecting its profits while passing on the risks and costs of its operations to Belizean citizens.  This is just one more example, says Patricia Adams, Executive Director of Probe International, a Canadian environmental group opposed to the dam.  “Fortis is harming public health and safety by discharging contaminated sediment-loaded water from behind its dam.  Fortis shareholders should pay to provide safe water supplies to those affected populations downstream and take all immediate measures to halt the release of these damaging discharges.”

For more information contact:

Probe International Executive Director, Patricia Adams
416 964-9223 (ext 227)


Candy Gonzalez