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NCRA: Hill was not told about report on substandard blocks

Published:Monday | January 9, 2023 | 12:55 AMJovan Johnson/Senior Staff Reporter

The National Compliance and Regulatory Authority (NCRA) has admitted to keeping Industry Minister Aubyn Hill in the dark over a July 2022 report that identified dozens of producers of substandard building blocks.

NCRA Chief Executive Officer Lorice Edwards Brown said the issue was brought to the minister’s attention after The Sunday Gleaner’s December 25 report exposing an internal assessment which called for “urgent attention” after several manufacturers were found selling blocks failing to meet the minimum requirement for bearing load.

Edwards Brown gave the update on January 5, two days after the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association said it was “a big concern” that she had not answered questions submitted by our newsroom on December 13.

“The minister met with ministry officials, representatives of the BSJ (Bureau of Standards Jamaica) and the NCRA, and gave specific instructions for action-oriented solutions to be recommended to address the issue,” she said in the emailed response last week.

A senior official in Hill’s ministry said the matter should have been raised with the ministry once the report was issued in July.

“The document speaks to ‘urgent attention’. That’s not something you think twice on. Sat with it for months, and now what? We have to be scrambling,” the official said.

The assessment sampled concrete hollow blocks between February and June 2022. From 136 samples taken from 109 block manufacturers across 12 parishes, only 59 samples met the required minimum compressive strength, returning a non-compliance level of 57 per cent.

Disaster risk reduction expert Dr Barbara Carby said the issue is serious, noting that the true test of a building may come during stress events such as an earthquake.

The average compliance rate by block manufacturers in 2022 was 28 per cent, the NCRA head revealed.

In 2015, the compliance rate was around 37 per cent.

The NCRA is also suffering from capacity issues as Edwards Brown noted that since 2016, the agency has had two dedicated block inspectors. Help comes from four people who have other responsibilities.

The agency has 123 registered block manufacturers on its roll, but industry estimates put the total number of blockmakers islandwide upwards of 400.

The regulator said actions taken against unauthorised operators include detention of products that fail to meet the standards. It has also pursued sensitisation sessions for the public in collaboration with the Block Makers Association of Jamaica and the Consumer Affairs Commission.

“Manufacturers typically pass both inspection and testing on approximately the third inspection visit during the registration process,” said Edwards Brown.

Edwards Brown has led the NCRA since it started operations in January 2016. The agency, formerly the regulatory division of the BSJ, is yet to be established in law and shares corporate services such as human resource management with the BSJ.

The Sunday Gleaner reported this week that more than three months after concerns were raised, the NCRA is yet to provide information on some brands of bottled coconut water and bottled water that have are failing to meet minimum standards for safe consumption.

“The outcome of the test results for the period August 2022 to November 2022 elicited a cause for concern,” said chairman of the BSJ Standards Council, Wilfred Baghaloo.

Questions the BSJ council sent to Edwards Brown, who is a member, remain outstanding. The council has since initiated an audit.

And while the NCRA has declared that it is satisfied that members of the public are consuming safe and healthy coconut and bottled water, the BSJ has steered clear of a similar pronouncement, saying it is awaiting the results of the findings audit.

Edwards Brown is also yet to explain why she authorised the release of a substandard shipment of rice imported last July by Blue Zone Limited on the same date that test results confirmed that the rice did not meet the standards.

The industry ministry has not answered questions on whether the actions of the NCRA head are acceptable, stating instead that it “does not issue public comments regarding its personnel”.

It has since announced a “comprehensive review” of Jamaica’s rice importation regime.