'We want our beach back!' - St Ann property owners push for CHEC to fund restoration after excavation-related damage
"We just want to see our beach come back. Basically, plain and simple, we want it restored to what it was," declared businessman Michael Drakulich yesterday during a Gleaner Editors' Forum at Jewels Dunn's River in St Ann.
Drakulich is one of several persons who claim that the value of beachfront properties they own has been negatively affected by pollution of the swimming beach as well as damage to the reef by soil washed down from the hills, caused by excavation undertaken by the China Harbour Engineering Company Limited (CHEC) for the North-South Highway.
The property owners contend that the damage is due to improper excavation practices, with scant regard for preservation of the natural environment, and now want CHEC to fund restoration of the beach.
The complainants contend that the coral reef bank is being smothered by the vast volume of dirt that has been allowed to flow unchecked into the beach. This, they claim, has resulted in the beach becoming unfit for swimming as swimmers now encounter severe physical discomfort, including burning of the eyes, as well as skin irritation.
Attorney-at-law Stephen Shelton, whose property has been affected, says experts have put a US$6 million price tag on cleaning up the beach, but this would not make sense until the flood of dirt, debris, rocks, and other pollutants could be effectively halted.
He explained: "What has happened with all of the silt that was dumped on our reef, if you kill that reef, you kill the bay, you kill the beach. That's what's happening, so we have an assessment of what will happen and what we need to do to fix the beach side, (and) you can't fix the beach side until you fix the land side."
The tide of silt and soil, which washes into the beach whenever it rains, has been attributed to and associated with inadequate and improper environmental safeguards by CHEC, which built the North-South Highway.
However, in response to complaints, CHEC said any negative impact from its construction and or operation of the highway was unintended and that it had taken concrete measures to address the issues brought to its attention.
In fact, the National Environment & Planning Agency served an enforcement notice on the company effective April 13, 2016, charging that its activities in this regard "are such as to pose a serious threat to the natural resources and/or to the public health".
The agency specifically accused the company of "causing or allowing excessive sedimentation of the coastal ecosystem in the Old Fort Bay Area of St Ann, this being the result of the washing down of silt, solid waste, and debris associated with construction and preparation activities along K61 to K67 of Section 3, being undertaken by the Jamaica North-South Highway in and/or around Old Fort Bay in the parish of St Ann".
However, in a letter responding to the charges, CHEC said it had been working to implement additional mitigating measures to enhance the protective steps initially taken.
These include, among other things:
- Construction of a large new check dam
- Placement of additional thrash racks in the Harbidge Gully
- The laying of top soil and grass over a number of areas along the highway.
The mitigation measures will continue to be implemented and monitored, CHEC said.