Thu | Jul 9, 2020

Simon Mitchell | Jamaica’s failure to use geology for development

Published:Tuesday | June 30, 2020 | 12:16 AM
This file photo from 2017 shows a section of the retaining wall along the North Coast Toll road that collapsed after heavy rains.
This file photo from 2017 shows a section of the retaining wall along the North Coast Toll road that collapsed after heavy rains.

The economic development of Jamaica is extremely important, but it has to be done in the right way and with appropriate regard to damage to the environment and the living conditions of its people. It is, therefore, critical that the instruments that govern our development are robust and fair.

In developing major infrastructure, our usual recourse is for a proposal document – that is usually not made public – and a publicly available Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which is the main way of determining how a project will affect people and the areas adjacent to the project. These documents should provide a clear review, carried out by qualified scientists, that allows the public to form their own opinions on the pros and cons of the development.

I now turn my attention to the geology section of the Montego Bay Bypass EIA, which I find is completely unsatisfactory. The geological data presented are stated to come from Bateson (2008), which is simply a digitised version of Geological Survey Geological Sheet 3 (Montego Bay) published in 1972, nearly 50 years ago (they are identical).

There have been numerous studies in the 48 years since that map was produced, and no mention is made of this or anything else. The faults shown on many of these early geological survey maps were identified through the use of aerial photographic interpretation – new at the time, but not now – yet many ‘faults’ identified in such studies have been shown to be benches cut during the uplift of Jamaica or other lineaments not related to real geological faults.

The geology presented in the EIA uses archaic terms such as ‘raised reefs’ rather than accepted geological formations, for example, Hopegate and Falmouth formations, which are easily mappable around Montego Bay. There is no indication of limestone fan deposits, which flank many of the north-facing hillsides on the coast of St James and which would potentially present problems for road construction.


The structural geology component of the report states that the main structural feature in the area is a syncline. This contradicts the geological assessment of the Montego Bay area, which is interpreted as a major anticline that brings up the Yellow Limestone in the area east of Salt Spring.

Having mapped 90 per cent of this area (and pretty much the rest of St James) in detail myself, it is clear to me that no geological work was undertaken for the EIA and that the true extent of formations, faults, and bedding orientation were not assessed by a field survey. The geology section consists of five pages, two and a half pages of text, and two maps. The poor use of English and geological terms indicates that this was not prepared by a geologist. I have to ask, how much money was allocated to the geology component of the EIA, and what were the terms of reference (what was the requirement for geological investigations)? Do two and a half pages of text qualify as a study?

This EIA should have given a better description of the geology. It should have indicated the areas where the Montpelier Formation was dipping towards the planned road course and, therefore, was susceptible to landslides. There are no bedding dips shown on the provided geological maps. The EIA should have indicated the real faults that are present in the area and the fact that young faults offset the Coastal Group and Montpelier Formation in the Bogue area. It should have considered the seismic hazards because of the 1957 Montego Bay Earthquake. The EIA did none of these things!

I might remind our readers of recent geological issues related to road construction in Jamaica. The North-South Leg of Highway 2000 was abandoned by the French company because of the geological issues that I presented to them after they had begun construction. China Harbour completed the venture, but there have been significant incidents that I had predicted in The Gleaner.


We can also consider the problems associated with the upgrade of the northern part of Junction Road. This is now more than a year behind schedule, with the statement issued that this was due to “unforeseen geological problems”. If a single geologist had been asked, they would have explained the issues: the shales of the Richmond Formation dipping down towards the road and likely to cause repeated landslides, and the conglomerates of the Wag Water Formation being intensively hard and requiring blasting. Were geologists consulted? Apparently not.

We have wasted hundreds of millions of US dollars on our road construction projects because we have not undertaken appropriate geological surveys beforehand. These problems could have been determined beforehand by a proper geological survey – at a very small fraction of the overrun cost. The poor quality of the geology component of the EIA for the Montego Bay Bypass is, unfortunately, another example in this complacency.

I recommend that the Government of Jamaica change its approaches to large-scale infrastructure development in Jamaica. It is unacceptable to use provisional geological maps produced by MGD (not to say they can’t be used as a first guide), which were not produced for construction purposes. All projects – let us say US$20 million or above – should have a properly commissioned geological survey that is conducted by a trained geologist, both before (in conjunction with the design stage) and after (during the EIA stage) the design phase. These surveys should be reviewed by competent geological entities. Clearly, this would fall under the mandate of the Mines and Geology Division. Jamaica is looking to achieve its 2030 goals, but in terms of ‘geology for development,’ we are still stuck in the 1970s.

Simon Mitchell is professor of sedimentary geology in the Department of Geography and Geology, The University of the West Indies, Mona. Send feedback to