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Sugar, soot and sickness - St Thomas residents claim they are suffering as Seprod ignores environmental rules

Published:Saturday | January 28, 2017 | 1:57 PMRyon Jones
Beatrice Dunn shows a handful of soot she said she scooped from the veranda of a home in Duckenfield St Thomas.
Monica Dawson, blames the Seprod-operated sugar factory for the soot she is pointing to on her bed, inside her house in Duckenfield, St Thomas.
Dalton Brown (left), factory manager of the Seprod-owned Golden Grove Sugar Factory in St Thomas, and Noel McLean, production manager, point to the chimney which residents claim is the cause of the air pollution affecting them.

Local manufacturing and distribution giant Seprod is operating its sugar factory in Golden Grove, St Thomas, in breach of several environmental rules, and residents of neighbouring communities say that they are paying the price with health issues, including asthma.

But the company is arguing that it will take billions of dollars for it to meet all the regulations, and it has no intention of spending that amount of money in an operation where it has already lost close to $4 billion since 2009, when it acquired the factory from the state-owned St Thomas Sugar Company.

"When the Government was selling it, part of the sale agreement was that they should have sorted out a lot of these and then sell the company, and they didn't," Seprod's CEO, Richard Pandohie, told The Sunday Gleaner.

"It makes no financial sense to resolve those (environmental) issues and invest in an operation that is costing us when I have other opportunities to invest in operations that would be more beneficial to the country and to the shareholders," added Pandohie in an interview with our news team last week.

Pandohie further argued that given how expensive it is to meet all of Environment and Planning Agency's (NEPA) requirements, local companies are pressured.

Lack of regulation

According to Pandohie, while complying with the NEPA rules is not bad, he is concerned about the lack of regulation for persons "who don't have factories, who are not making those types of investments; who are simply buying finished goods and bringing in to compete with us".

"The easiest way to comply is to just be a distributor in this country. Manufacturing is already on its knees in this country, and they (NEPA) are making it worse," argued Pandohie, whose business development manager, Milton Maragh, said that Seprod is willing to comply and has started dialogue with NEPA, while submitting a compliance plan.

Pandohie was responding to a Sunday Gleaner probe that showed that it is operating the Golden Grove factory in Duckenfield, St Thomas, without an environmental permit for operation or an environmental licence for trade effluence.

The company is also accused of modifying the wetlands, marshlands, and mangroves in the area without approval.

In addition, some residents of Duckenfield and neighbouring communities such as Hampton Court, Dalvey, Cheswick, Stokes Hall, Golden Grove, and Winchester are complaining bitterly that the factory's use of the dry, pulpy residue left after the extraction of juice from sugar cane, called bagasse, to burn in its furnace is emitting soot from its chimney, which is blowing into their homes.

The emission from the factory is being blamed by some residents for asthma attacks, coughs, and itching. The residents say that the soot worsens air pollution, gets into their drinking water, and even blackens the clothes they hang out to dry.

"It affects us every day for six months of the year until the crop locks off, and sometimes it lasts for up to eight months. It is not the cane-burning that affects us. It is when the factory burns back the trash and the thing that comes out through the chimney," said Michael Fraser, a resident of Duckenfield.

Returning resident Roy Davis said that after 50 years abroad, coming home to find problems like this one is upsetting.

According to Davis, while the chimney at the sugar factory was present during his childhood years, so much soot was not flying about.

No permission to use bagasse

According to Peter Knight, chief executive officer of the NEPA, Seprod does not have permission to use bagasse in its furnace at the sugar factory.

Knight said that while the factory does have an air pollutant discharge licence, there are a number of conditions attached to prevent residents from being affected.

"Last year, we had a similar complaint where they were taking waste to that factory and burning it and covering the people in soot and dirt," said Knight.

The NEPA boss said that the agency is also concerned about how the effluence from the factory is disposed of.

"We have had complaints from the community, and we have had videos sent to us from the community of high trade effluence that is being discharged into the environment. So it has been impacting the mangrove, the wetland, and the coastal eco system in the Holland Bay area," said Knight.

"The effluence is also not meeting the trade effluence NRCA (Natural Resources Conservation Authority) standards. We have had other issues with them such as breaches of the permits and licence regulations."

Knight said that Golden Grove is not the only sugar factory that NEPA has issues with, and while the agency is willing to put the sugar factories on improvement plans, the owners of these entities have to be willing to comply.