Belize's Chalillo Dam Under Judicial Scrutiny
Nov 10, 2009
chalillo-dam.jpg

Probe International Friday, October 16, 2009

Belize’s Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO) has filed an application to Belize’s Supreme Court for an injunction to stop the sediment discharges from the Canadian owned Chalillo dam on the Macal River. Those sediment discharges, which were first detected in July by the population downstream, have fouled the water, making it unsafe to use, and have threatened the downstream river ecology and the coastline where the river empties into the Caribbean Sea.

BELPO’s legal action piggybacks their 2007 case to the Supreme Court in which it alleged that the Belize government had failed to monitor and enforce adherence by the dam company, the Belize Electric Company Limited (BECOL) to the Environmental Compliance Plan (ECP) for the Chalillo dam. The Supreme Court agreed with BELPO and ruled in 2008 that the ECP was a binding agreement between BECOL and the Government of Belize, creating legal obligations.

The Supreme Court ordered the DOE to enforce sections of the ECP that required the operators to prepare a catastrophic dam failure plan, an emergency preparedness plan, water quality testing, testing of mercury levels in the fish and a system for information sharing and public input.

None of these requirements, says BELPO, have been fully upheld and the government has failed to enforce the ECP, despite the court order.

The Current Situation

The latest legal action from BELPO comes after the group released pictures in August 2009 showing the Chalillo dam discharging sediment-laced water—contaminating the downstream river with turbidity levels hundreds, if not thousands, of times higher than the standards set by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Though a host of Belizean government departments and agencies, including the DOE, the Public Utilities Commission, Belize Water Services and the Health Department, have been aware of the situation for several months now, they have provided no information to the public regarding the river’s water quality or potential health concerns.

Candy Gonzalez, President of BELPO, says environmentalists and citizens are furious.

“Had the ECP been followed and enforced,” she says, “BECOL would have been obligated to find an environmentally acceptable way of removing or releasing the sediment that has been accumulating behind its dam. Instead the company has dealt with this problem—that its own feasibility studies failed to anticipate—by irresponsibly discharging so much sediment that the river and marine systems downstream have been damaged.”

At a press conference last month, a representative from the DOE was quick to assure the public that “the results of testing conducted are available to the public.” Stephen Usher, BECOL’s Vice President of Operations, said his company “has taken water samples and sent them to the Government of Belize – regulatory/relevant authorities to analyze and make their decision on how to move forward…”

But BELPO had not been able to retrieve this information. Before going to the Supreme Court this month, BELPO sought the critical health information under Belize’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and filed a Notice of Application with the Ombudsman. None of these requests produced the results from the water samples. Since filing the application with the Supreme Court, government authorities have disclosed some data but not in a form that is readily useful to the public.

“The concerns and cries of the people seemed to fall on deaf ears and blind eyes,” says Ms. Gonzalez. “It is apparent that BECOL is being protected and not the people.”

What BELPO Wants

BELPO has suggested two possible plans of action: first, the Supreme Court issue an Order to halt the release of sediments in the Macal River, and put a stringent monitoring system—with scheduled reports—in place. As part of this proposal, BELPO wants permission to apply for an Enforcement Declaration to enforce the regulations ordered in the Supreme Court’s decision last year.

The other possible plan would be for the Supreme Court to allow for an independent team with appropriate qualifications to be appointed to carry out the duties that the DOE has failed to perform. The costs of this team would be borne by the DOE and the Attorney General of Belize, and/or BECOL.

Fortis Staying Quiet

The Newfoundland-based Fortis Inc., meanwhile, which is the owner of BECOL, has not answered a letter from Probe International’s Executive Director Patricia Adams, to provide information on how the company intends to deal with the sediment problem or if it plans to compensate residents for the economic setbacks and health hazards as a result of the pollution. Ms. Adams also asked Fortis’ President and CEO Stanley Marshall if the problems at the Chalillo dam will affect the company’s shareholders.

“We regret that this latest incident of shock sediment discharges only adds to the long list of environmental damage done by this ill-fated dam,” Ms. Adams wrote in her letter. “We feel it is incumbent on you to disclose operational data so that the public is properly informed about this siltation problem and so that measures can be taken to stop this contamination of the river.”

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