Thu | Mar 4, 2021

Court case thwarts PAAC’s Bengal-Puerto Bueno probe

Published:Thursday | January 14, 2021 | 12:23 AMRomario Scott/Gleaner Writer

An attempt by a parliamentary committee to dig into a controversial bid for a licence to allow mining in the ecologically sensitive Puerto Bueno Mountains came up empty-handed yesterday after the Attorney General’s Department cautioned them against making statements which could prejudice the matter now before the Supreme Court.

There has been pubic outcry over the granting of an environmental permit to Bengal Development Limited last November by Prime Minister Andrew Holness after the request was initially turned down by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA).

In December, eight residents sued the Government over the issue, claiming that Holness’ reversal “abrogates, abridges, or infringes” several constitutional provisions, including the right to their right to enjoy a healthy and productive environment free from threat of injury, environmental abuse, and degradation.

The 569-acre property contains more than 335 million tons of limestone reserves and Bengal is proposing to mine more than 35 million over the 20-year phased roll-out of its project.

CAUTIONED BY LAWYERS

Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation – under which NEPA falls – Audrey Sewell, told Parliament’s Public Administration and Appropriations Committee yesterday that several legal officers are expressing concern over what might be said at the committee hearing.

“Contact has been made by several legal personnel this morning based on what they read in today’s Gleaner, that NEPA is expected to be grilled on this matter and we, therefore, sought advice ... . They have been calling to caution us to say that they would not want us to compromise their position by what they will be presenting before the courts,” said Sewell.

But in wanting to proceed, PAAC Chairman Mikael Phillips contended that documents presented to the committee by NEPA were already in the public domain and the committee’s line of questioning would be restricted to the documents.

But Juliet Holness intervened and asked the chairman to consult with the parliamentary staff and lawyers who were on the committee.

After a 10-minute recess, Phillips said that the committee would not proceed with its enquiry but ask general questions.

The court matter is set to be heard in February.

In the meantime, the committee was told that no quarry licence has been issued to Bengal, although an application appeared before the commissioner of mines.

Dr Alwin Hales, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Mining, told the committee, too, that the quarry advisory committee had also not yet made a recommendation on the licence.

“The quarry advisory committee had not met since July of last year,” Hales disclosed.

NEPA CEO Peter Knight also disclosed during yesterday’s sitting that a $40-million performance bond to be paid by Bengal by this weekend has not yet been honoured.

Knight explained that although the matter is now before the court, a valid environmental permit had been issued, and therefore, the attendant performance bond has to be honoured within the specified period.

“The conditions are active. If the permittee doesn’t comply with the conditions of the permit, then the permittee would be in breach. ... We are continuing with the work as if the permit is active and the permit is active,” Knight insisted.

Knight, however, said that Bengal could request an extension to pay the performance bond or face possible suspension or revocation of the permit.

romario.scott@gleanerjm.com