Daraine Luton, Senior Staff Reporter
After conducting technical studies in sections of the island, China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) rejected sites that would subsequently be suggested by concerned interests as alternatives to the Goat Islands for the establishment of logistics facilities.
Speaking in the House of Representatives yesterday, Transport, Works and Housing Minister Dr Omar Davies said the Chinese company did a "tremendous amount of technical work", which included analysing tidal movement and depth of the sea, and ruled out Jackson Bay and Port Esquivel as possible sites for the project.
In recent weeks, these two sites have been named by environmental lobbyists as locations to which the Government should direct CHEC after the company decided that Fort Augusta was too small for the scale project it planned to undertake.
But with its studies completed at least a year before the intervention of environmental interests, CHEC had instead proposed to build port facilities at the Goat Islands, located in the Portland Bight Protected Area, and to connect them to a logistics yard in Old Harbour, St Catherine, by causeway.
However, the environmental lobby has opposed the project, saying it would destroy marine and other life forms in the Portland Bight area.
In the face of the opposition, Davies commissioned a scoping study, which he yesterday told Parliament found that the three fish sanctuaries in the area have been depleted as a result of dynamiting and overfishing.
"The only sanctuary likely to be impacted by the proposed project is the Galleon Bay, which is experiencing naturally degraded performance," Davies said.
The minister told the House that there are several environmental strategies that can be undertaken to counter the effects of the environmental impact of the CHEC project. The strategies, Davies said, include the replanting and relocation of disturbed areas of mangrove and seagrass as well as the creation of alternative fish sanctuaries.
Davies told Parliament that the Portland Bight Protected Area was currently home to several industrial operations, including the Old Harbour Power Station, Jamalco, Rock Point Port, and Doctor Bird Power barges.
The minister said CHEC and the Port Authority of Jamaica would continue to have discussions to refine aspects of the project with a view to having a framework agreement finalised by the end of January 2014.
If the project is approved by Cabinet, it will then be submitted to the National Environment and Planning Agency, which will outline terms of reference for an environmental impact assessment.
In the meantime, Karl Samuda, the opposition spokesman on works, said Jamaica was moving too slowly with the project, adding that the Chinese could move to Central America.
"It is time for the Government to take a decision," Samuda said.
He stressed that Jamaica has "an extremely important location", but it appears the Government is dawdling.
"We must act and act quickly to take advantage of our position," Samuda said.
He reminded Parliament that the main shipping channels are 22 miles from Jamaica and cautioned that Nicaragua could beat Jamaica to the punch as that country was in the process of finalising arrangements for a US$40-billion canal to expand the Pacific port facilities.
With its geostrategic location, Jamaica is seeking to take advantage of the expansion of the Panama Canal, which is due to be completed in 2015, and is one of the reasons CHEC is proposing to spend US$1.5 billion on the project.