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David Salmon | Digging for fool’s gold?

Published:Thursday | January 13, 2022 | 12:06 AM

IT IS great to start the year with the latest instalment of the Jamaican pantomime starring a favourite reoccurring character, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA). The latest play, ‘Digging for Fool’s Gold?’, has been met with mixed views, with both praise and derision alike.

However, it is certain that the decision by NEPA to permit mining in lands adjacent to the Cockpit Country Protected Area has reignited discussions on the efficacy of mining and the characteristics of environmental protection in Jamaica. It is not only important to scrutinise the decisions made by the organisation, but it is also useful to discuss the efficacy of mining and processing in Jamaica.

Additionally, consideration should be made as to whether the extractive industry, as currently structured, is able to provide the promised benefits to Jamaicans who are impacted by mining operations. This is in light of the indication given by then Transport and Mining Minister Robert Montague that exciting prospects for extracting rare earth elements exist for Jamaica.

QUESTION OF POLLUTION

The most frequent question that is asked about bauxite mining locally is whether the environment is left permanently scarred by pollution. The truth is that the mere extraction of bauxite does not cause pollution.

The environmental impact assessment (EIA) for Special Mining Lease 173 (SML 173) Area, which includes the land adjacent to the protected area, revealed that, “Nationally, the baseline associated with groundwater quality and quantity in proximity to bauxite-mining operations, for over 60 years, have shown that there has been no pollution of groundwater caused by bauxite mining.”

However, this assessment does not paint the full picture. While the extraction of bauxite may not cause pollution, processing it into alumina creates a sludge of challenges. Windalco, which is another reoccurring actor in this pantomime, provides instructive examples of the dangers associated with alumina refining.

NEPA recently concluded that Windalco is the “only entity” that has repeatedly polluted the Rio Cobre, due to the release of effluence from its operations. Yet, even after four strikes in a decade, Windalco is not out.

For strike one, the company was prosecuted and paid “a substantial [undisclosed] sum”. Strike two saw an enforcement notice issued, but no was fine levied. With strike three, an enforcement notice was served while the matter is before the courts. While last year’s strike four saw NEPA introducing a “substantial environmental performance bond”.

Adding to NEPA’s emasculation is the fact that the maximum fines that can be issued for breaches of the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) Act is a substantial l$50,000, or $100,000 under the Wild Life Protection Act.

Incredulously, while at a ceremony to break ground for the construction of a second red mud sludge lake, Minister Montague described Windalco as an “excellent corporate citizen” that prioritised making a positive social impact. This occurred while Windalco vehemently denies its responsibility for last year’s fish kill. Certainly, the minister did not consult the fishing communities near the Rio Cobre. To quote one of my public policy lecturers, “Jamaica is an island where illegality and legality are bedfellows.”

Even though the environmental impact assessment for SML 173 states that “risk to water resources will always be present” due to mining, don’t be afraid, NEPA is here. Here lies the tragicomedy. NEPA, which has been accused of poor enforcement, is expected to monitor the operations of a joint venture that has the potential to yield significant revenue directly for the Government of Jamaica (GOJ).

That same EIA stated, “There is no other sector of the Jamaican economy which can in the immediate and short term, provide the necessary level of export income to support the economy.” The 2018 Economic and Social Survey highlights that 77 per cent of the value of exports is due to the extractive industry. With the GOJ owning 52 per cent of Noranda, the question now becomes, how can we ensure vital oversight of mining operations?

JEKYLL AND HYDE ENVIRONMENT POLICY

Given the enormous incentives for profit, expecting effective oversight is wishful thinking at best. Before the tribal partisans unsheathe their pitchforks to skewer the Government, let us not forget that environmental policy across administrations reflects a Jekyll and Hyde personality.

That is the only way you can explain how, on one hand, you can have an administration that can be credited (and rightly so) for clearly demarcating the boundaries of the Cockpit Country, while that same administration approves mining adjacent to those demarcated boundaries. This would be laughable, if it was not tragic.

The GOJ must recognise the inherent fallacies that arise when you attempt to be a paragon of environmentalism and approve mining in ecologically sensitive locations. With a public whose distrust of government has ossified, it is important to clearly outline in a transparent and consistent manner the approval process for permits.

OUTDATED LEGISLATION

Furthermore, the 2020 Intergovernment Forum (IGF) Mining Policy Framework Assessment: Jamaica, indicated that the Mining Act of 1947 is critically outdated and does not reflect “current knowledge or best practice, nor does it deal with all aspects of mining, from exploration and production to closure and post-closure management”.

The industry is also guarded by a legislative leviathan comprised of a number of overlapping laws, including the NRCA Act, the Bauxite Encouragement Act, the Quarries Control Act, and the Factories Act. Incredulously, the IGF report added that this convoluted muddle does not adequately address the post-mining transition.

Before we introduce new extractive ventures, it is imperative that we update the industry’s legislative and policy framework, including the National Minerals Policy. Attempting to pursue emergent ventures with outdated legislation would be a case of putting new wine in an old wineskin. The existing wineskin is already insufficient as it is, so imagine pouring a Château Margaux in a leaky, plastic cup.

The new legislative framework must also include adequate planning for the post-mining transition as inevitably, as with all non-renewable resources, it will run out. In Jamaica, bauxite mining is a sunset industry that occasionally shows signs of life with its death throes. What is the next step after bauxite?

BOOM AND BUST CYCLES

The boom and bust cycles inherent to the mining industry underscore the necessity to plan the post-mining transition. Jamaica’s dependence on mining revenue makes it particularly vulnerable to these cycles. Several communities adjacent to quarrying sites illustrate the effects.

With a boom, production increases and investments pour into the community as employment opportunities surge. As commodity prices fall, investments dry up and the once-thriving community becomes emaciated, with the skeletal remains of the plant transforming into a harbinger for the death of the community.

To avoid these cycles, economic diversification beyond the extractive industries is the only option. This desire to yield significant resource windfalls while failing to strengthen other industries, such as agriculture and manufacturing, would repeat the same boom and bust cycles that have plagued the economy.

Before we proceed to carve up the Dry Harbour Mountains– and bearing in mind our rapacious desire to reap rich rewards from rare earth elements – it is important that we ask ourselves, can we provide assurances that effective environmental management will be maintained while new industries are explored? If we are unable to answer this question, then Jamaica is simply digging for fool’s gold.

David Salmon is a public policy student at the University of the West Indies. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com, davidsalmon@live.com, or tweet him at DavidSalmonJA.