Sun | Jan 24, 2021

‘Nothing to hide’ - Stakeholders defend economic benefits of Dry Harbour mining

Published:Sunday | November 15, 2020 | 12:19 AMJanet Silvera and Jovan Johnson - Sunday Gleaner Writers
Sweet
Sweet

Despite unrelenting pressure from environmentalists and local residents, and the profit-gobbling stringent conditions imposed by the state’s environment watchdog, Jamaica World LLC has declared that the undisclosed millions being pumped into mining in the ecologically sensitive Puerto Bueno Mountains, also called the Dry Harbour Mountains in St Ann, is all “worth it”.

The Andrew Holness administration has been beset by a controversy that erupted last week after it emerged that the prime minister, as environment minister, in July signed off on a recommendation, reversing the decision of the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) to not grant a permit to Bengal Development Limited (now owned by Jamaica World) to carry out mining in the area located on Jamaica’s north coast.

The proposed quarry site is at Rio Bueno off the north coast Queen’s Highway. The 569-acre property contains over 335 million tons of limestone reserves. Approximately two million was mined between 2001 and 2008, but Bengal had proposed to mine over 35 million over the 20-year phased roll-out of its quarrying.

NEPA ruled against the application in May on several grounds, including concerns that there could be irreversible damage to a largely untouched limestone forest that is the home of endemic and endangered species, as well as strong opposition from residents of St Ann, a major tourism hotspot.

Holness, who last Thursday broke silence on the matter, in dismissing the “rubbish” from some environment interests, said the 72 conditions imposed on Bengal by NEPA in mining 123 acres of the 569-acre property would come at “significant costs” – to be borne by the entity.

Kashif Sweet, the managing partner of the Florida-registered Jamaica World, admits the requirements, which include a $40-million bond for restoration, are onerous but will not stop his company from pursuing the project.

“Relative to other quarries in the industry, the size of this quarry, the level of certification and expertise is much more expensive and, quite frankly, it’s not going to be the most profitable quarry because of these restrictions,” the US-based private equity investor told The Sunday Gleaner yesterday.

“We can be very creative in the way that we approach the market. We think the market demand is there. And even with the added cost, we think there’s still the ability to create value for our shareholders.”

A laughing Sweet was firm in refusing to disclose how much it would cost to comply with the conditions as well as how the new measures will impact on the projections of $635 million in tax inflows for the Government and the 100 jobs expected to be created.

There were other things he wouldn’t reveal.

The subsidiary, Bengal, which owned the property in question, was bought from undisclosed Jamaican owners in 2017, and Companies Office of Jamaica records obtained last Tuesday showed the entity with Delilah Limited as director based at the Trou Garnier Financial Centre in St Lucia, a region territory favoured for its offshore financial operations.

Records locally show that Bengal had fallen into non-compliance, as it failed to make financial statement filings for 2018, 2019 and 2020 – all the years following its 2017 incorporation in Jamaica.

Sweet said Bengal was inherited with the St Lucian history but is now wholly owned by Jamaica World, which has slipped in and out of active status in Florida since it was registered there in 2016.

“We’re just a private company with multiple shareholders,” was all he would say when pressed for details on directorship and major shareholders of Jamaica World, as well as to confirm the previous owners of the land.

“We have nothing to hide,” he said, however.

SHOWER POSSE CONNECTION

The land located in the Dry Harbour Mountain was previously owned by Diamond Property Development Company, which had made an application in 2010 to mine the same area.

Duane Blake, son of Vivian Blake (the reputed late founder of the notorious Shower Posse), was the director and major shareholder in the company which has been removed from the Companies Office register, official records show.

The Shower Posse has historically been linked to the ruling Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), an issue that has become live after the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP) demanded that the Government indicate whether any connection influenced the decision.

Asked if he was aware of the antecedents of the company before the decision, Holness said: “No. But those things would not have been material in the consideration. What we considered was the environmental protection … and the development proposals.”

Saying the PNP would not ask a question for which it does not have the answers, spokesperson on environment, Senator Sophia Frazer-Binns, said Holness needs to speak more on that matter.

“It is important in the spirit of openness for the Government to state who is owner, and what any relationships the owners, directors or stakeholders … may have with the JLP, whether presently or in the past,” she said, noting that the Opposition was considering its ‘options’ to halt the mining.

Bengal’s appeal against NEPA’s decision was heard by Leslie Campbell, a former minister in the Holness-headed Economic Growth and Job Creation Ministry.

Under the law, the minister is empowered to consider an appeal and render a decision which is final.

In his defence, Holness argued that his administration’s “enlightened” decision was made partly because of the “very important” promise of the broader investment pitch Bengal has for the area, which included ecotourism, residential and commercial projects.

NO TIMELINE

Sweet was unable to give a timeline for when any of those will be done, and was similarly uncertain as to when mining will take place in an area previously mined but without any assessment of the environmental damage.

But like Holness, Sweet argued that the development was needed, especially as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic, eating up billions of dollars in revenue and more than 100,000 jobs.

“We don’t want to stick a mini industrial city where it should not belong. It all has to work harmoniously with the community, but there is a real need in the country broadly and in the local community. There’s a real need for jobs, there’s a real need for affordable housing,” he declared.

Environmentalists and residents, however, believe the approach to the sensitive area can be different.

Dr Thomas Goreau, president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance, grew up in Discovery Bay, St Ann, where his father of same name studied the area, and in particular the sea level caves which he said records millions of years of Jamaica’s environmental history in the rocks.

The Government should revisit its decision, he argued.

“The site is the most significant global environmental location for reef and the caves, and for understanding how much global warming and sea level rise will result from CO2 increase,” said the former senior scientific affairs officer for global climate change and biodiversity at the United Nations Centre for Science and Technology for Development.

“The cave is better preserved in Jamaica than anywhere else, and we have asked the Government to get the ancient sea level caved designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for Global Climate Change,” he added, a point which harks back to the 1969 recommendation for the area to be formally declared protected.

“Government is saying the area of the proposed quarry was already badly damaged by a quarry used for the North Coast Highway, but the access road that was constructed years ago damaged the cave and it will never come back. It is important to protect what is left. Jamaica could be a leader in stopping runaway climate situation, not a victim.”

editorial@gleanerjm.com