5 July 2009
The Star

Submitted by Candy and George Gonzalez, San Ignacio Town, Cayo

To refresh our memories, the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO), acting on behalf of people and communities downstream of the dam projects, charged that the Department of Environment failed to monitor and ensure adherence to the Environmental Compliance Plan (ECP) for the Chalillo Dam.

On June 30, 2008, the Supreme Court of Belize ruled that an ECP is a binding agreement that imports duties to the parties.  To date, those orders have not been implemented.

Though many sections of the ECP were not met, BELPO focused on the ones with the most immediate health and safety concerns for the downstream population: water quality, mercury levels in the fish, putting in place a dam break warning system and emergency preparedness plan and informing the public and seeking their participation and awareness.

As the hurricane season approached, BELPO wrote the Prime Minister, hand delivering the letter on April 27, 2009. Copies were hand delivered, on that same day, to the Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment, the Minister of Public Utilities, National Emergency Management (NEMO), Transport and Communication, and the Minister of Health.

The only formal response was from NEMO.  Yet, we still have no dam break early warning system and the people have no idea what to do in case of an emergency.

We do not know about the mercury levels in the fish from the Macal River or how much fish can be safely eaten and we do not know the quality of the water in the river.

There has been no exchange of information or public participation.

When sirens went off a few weeks ago in San Ignacio, no one, including the Town Council Office, knew what they meant, if anything.

As we go about sharing information with you, we reproduce herewith the letter:

 

April 2009
Hon.  Dean Barrow, Prime Minister & Minister of Finance
Office of The Prime Minister
Sir. Edney Cain Building
Belmopan City

Dear Mr.  Prime Minister;
On April 20, 2009, I spoke with the Honourable Gaspar Vega along with Chief Environmental Officer, Martin Alegria about the Department of Environment’s failure to assure the Environmental Compliance Plan (ECP) for the Chalillo Dam was being enforced.

Mr.  Alegria stated that NEMO was the reason there was no dam break early warning system for the Chalillo Dam.

I had spoken to Mr.  Westby of NEMO who had told me the previous month that NEMO had signed off on the system and it was up to BECOL.

This letter is being written upon the advise of the Honourable Gaspar Vega who indicated that by writing you and copying the Minister in charge of NEMO, the Minister in charge of Health and himself, we might get the matteraddressed.

As you are aware, on June 30, 2008, the Supreme Court ordered the Department of Environment (DOE) to fulfill certain obligations of the ECP for the Chalillo Dam.

In Paragraph 78 of the decision (BELPO v Department of Environment/ Ministry of Natural Resources, Supreme Court of Belize Claim number 302 of 2007), the Court declared that “(i) ..  the ECP imports duties on BECOL the fourth respondent which the defendant the DOE is lawfully bound to see implemented and fulfilled;and ordered that “(iii) .  .  the Dam Break Early Warning System and the communications system to relay a possible dam break flash flood be routinely tested or simulated for effectiveness, particularly between June and November each year;” ordered that “(iv) .  .  the DOE to require BECOL to carry out public information programme explaining to the local population along the Macal River in the vicinity of the Chalillo Dam, the health risks associated with high levels of mercury in fish;” ordered that “(v) .  .  the taxa richness of benthic communities be included as a relevant parameter in monitoring and testing the water quality in Chalillo; .  .

In November 2008, BECOL held a public information session in San Ignacio Town along with presenters from Public Health and the Department of Environment.  At that time, concern was raised about the absence of a dam break early warning system, the lack of information on water quality and the lack of information on mercury levels in the fish.

The Public Health Officer stated that studies had been done and warned that fish from the Macal River did contain high levels of mercury.  But that information was not disseminated to the public, in general.  Concerning the water quality tests, it was stated they were “too expensive” to carry out.  Yet people said they and people they knew had suffered and were suffering from various intestinal problems.

When Mr. Lynn Young appeared on LOVE FM’s Morning Show on March 16, 2009, a caller asked him about these things.  He said that NEMO was the reason there was no dam break early warning system.  He then said the reason there were problems about getting reliable testing done on the water and on the fish was due to “9-11”.

When this was brought to Mr. Alegria’s attention, he said Mr. Young was “joking”.  It is no joking matter especially when it was broadcast on the radio.

As another “hurricane season” approaches, the majority of the obligations are still unmet.  We say we are a nation that respects the “rule of law” yet, in the past, rich and powerful businesses and people flaunt and hold themselves above our laws.

We ask that you urgently address these serious matters. People are worried about the lack of any dam break warning system and there is great concern over the safety of the water and fish of the Macal River.

We believe you have done a great deal to address the abuse of power of the previous administration and its “friends”.  We sincerely hope you can get the Court’s order implemented.

Sincerely,

Candy B. Gonzalez,

for the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO) , acting on behalf of the people and communities downstream of the dam projects.