Development pros urge resolution of North South Highway woes
THE FIRESTORM over the environmental damage associated with the North South Highway has come as little surprise to some local experts, who say every effort must now be made to fix the problems.
“If material is ending up on the beaches or in the sea or on people’s property, then it is fairly clear. If it happening because of highway construction, then it is a straightforward thing: you clean up and compensate for whatever damage you have caused,” said David Smith, head of the Institute for Sustainable Development at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona.
Property owners at Old Fort Bay say the bay has suffered environmental damage caused by run-off of marl, silt and garbage, reportedly due to inadequate drainage and unprotected escarpment along the highway, which is being worked on by China Harbour Engineering Company.
A July 18 letter from Public Defender Arlene Harrison-Henry to the head of the National Environmental and Planning Agency (NEPA) Peter Knight attests to the concerns and requests answers from the regulator.
“I write to you… for you to provide an explanation as to how it is that the beneficiary of a NEPA permit could be allowed to operate in a manner that cause direct threat and damage to the environment,” the letter said.
It went further to query what safeguards, if any, the permit held to prevent large volumes of loose marl from washing into the sea at Old Fort Bay “ultimately destroying the reefs and natural protective ecosystems”.
It also queries what steps NEPA had taken to “insist that the permitee takes immediate steps to clean the sea… restore the damage to the beach and reefs and to offer compensation to the residents who have suffered as a direct consequence”.
The letter follows on a series of reported breaches to which NEPA itself has reacted, more recently on April 8 when it served an enforcement notice on the contractors.
The notice directed that they “complete all outstanding slope protection, scour mitigation and slope rehabilitation works and install drainage and hydraulic structures/features (inclusive of but not limited to check dams and sediment ponds/basins)”.
It also directed that they “conduct clean up activities east of Harbridge Gully on each occasion that rainfall results in the accumulation of solid waste and debris and sediment deposits and undertake other activities that will ensure that the constitutional right to enjoy a healthy and productive environment free from threat or damage from environmental abuse and degradation of the ecological heritage is strictly adhered to”.
There is also concern over the collapse of a section of the highway due to a landslide earlier this year.
“I don't think there was ever any doubt that at some point that was going to happen,” said Professor Simon Mitchell, head of the Department of Geography and Geology at the UWI.
“Those slopes/banks are, to my mind, inherently unstable judging by the geology of them. The limestone is not much of a problem, but where the landslide was, there is a problem,” he added.
The landslide occurred between Unity Valley and Treadways in St Catherine.
Mitchell — also acting head of the Earthquake Unit —had warned of the potential for disaster from as far back as 2012 when he wrote in The Gleaner: “While I wish for a safe construction of the north-south link, I must say that to ignore the geology will lead to disaster! I would not want to see the next small earthquake or the next heavy rains lead to the collapse of our new highway.”
On Tuesday, he said Jamaica should do better.
“A lot of the problem is that we do not use enough information when we are designing these things. The information exists; we could do better. We don't need to have the country wasting money when we know where the problems are,” he noted.
Diana McCaulay, head of the Jamaica Environment Trust, insisted the authorities do their duty and ensure proper monitoring and enforcement at the highway.
“When it is a big investor, whatever government — whether PNP or JLP — they are absolutely unwilling to enforce the environmental laws…They write letters, they call them into meetings, they go through a long list of what they call enforcement action, but it doesn’t really amount to anything,” she said.
“It rarely results in prosecution. It almost never results in the withdrawal of permits or them having to, if they build too many rooms [on a hotel, for example], to knock it down. It always gets regularised,” McCaulay added.