'We prefer not to sue' - Property owners hope to settle Old Fort Bay issue with CHEC out of court
Pollution of the marine environment along Old Fort Bay, St Ann, has started to impact the economic fortunes of property owners along the affected shoreline, with a few summer rental cancellations reported.
The National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), acting on complaints it received, confirmed that soil erosion caused by inappropriate excavation practices during construction of the North-South Highway caused significant volumes of silt, solid waste and debris to wash into the bay.
NEPA served an enforcement notice on China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), 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 public health".
In a letter responding to the charges, CHEC noted that it had been working to implement additional mitigating measures to enhance the protective steps initially taken. It said any negative impact from its construction and/or operation of the highway was unintended and that it had implemented concrete measures to address the issues brought to its attention.
Meanwhile, talks have been ongoing between the complainants, NEPA, CHEC, the National Road Operating and Construction Company and Jamaica North-South Highway Company.
"I am optimistic that a solution can be found," Mayor of St Ann Desmond Gilmore said on Wednesday at a Gleaner Editors' Forum at Jewels Dunn's River in the parish.
"I am optimistic because even the Chinese themselves, who would want to develop east of Old Fort Bay, would be affected by it and that is why we are optimistic that we can arrive at some solution," he insisted.
Hoping for resolution
Michael Drakulic, an attorney-at-law who is one of the affected property owners, is also hoping that a resolution, whereby CHEC is held accountable for restoration of the bay to its original state, can be achieved without having to go through the courts.
"Before we can even talk about fixing that bay ..., we have to talk about stopping the stuff from coming down so as to clean it up; and are we going to hold CHEC responsible for that? Yes, of course, we will! Are we going to have to litigate to do that? We hope not, because CHEC has a dog in this fight. They want to develop the land next to Old Fort Bay, (that is) Top Bay, which is part of the agreement to develop the road, and that's 2,000 hotel rooms and, possibly, a casino. That is the same bay that their guests will be swimming in, so it's in their best interest to clean the bay."
Stephen Shelton, who owns an affected property and is also an attorney-at-law, told the forum that the complainants have engaged the services of professionals to assess and monitor the extent of the damage. In addition, the group is also looking at the necessary restoration options, the cost of which now stands at US$6 million. He is also in favour of an out-of-court settlement based on full restoration of the environmental breaches.
"My position, from where I sit in this issue, as a lawyer [is that] you have disturbed our property, you have disturbed the environment, and what you need to do (is) fix it to bring it back to what it was before you did what you did."