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NRCA, NEPA under fire for regulatory failure after Spanish hotel ruling

BY PETRE WILLIAMS Sunday Observer reporter

Sunday, May 28, 2006    

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AN NRCA advisor last week acknowledged that the environmental watchdog was not always as rigorous in its oversight responsibilities as it should be and suggested a review of procedures, even as the agency is peppered with criticisms of regulatory failure and political bias.

"For me the whole environmental assessment process needs to be reviewed again in determining how the terms of reference are set (and) who they are set by," said Dr Elaine Fisher.

Such a review, she said, was done a few years ago.

Fisher, vice-chair of biodiversity for the Natural Resource Conservation Authority ( NRCA) and former executive director of the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ), added that there was also the need to look at the selection process for companies that conducted environmental impact assessments (EIA).

"Maybe we should have some rating or something with regards to them. That is also a problem, I think," she told the Sunday Observer last week.

Dr Eric Garraway, chair of the advisory board for the Natural History Division of the IOJ, agreed with the rating scheme, saying: "The critical thing here is the credibility of the consultant.

"We need to set some minimum standards of persons who can be used as consultants. Once that is in place then the developer can choose from that list," said Garraway, who is also a professor in the Department of Life Science at the University of the West Indies. "And then there needs to be proper public scrutiny of every major EIA," he added.

Their comments come as criticism mounts against the NRCA and its parent National Environmental and Planning A\gency (NEPA), following the May 16 ruling by Justice Brian Sykes, quashing the environment permit for the construction of the Spanish hotel development at Pear Tree Bottom in St Ann.

It was a verdict, though stayed until June 27, that was handed down on grounds that the EIA conducted was unreliable, showing little evidence that its creators could speak with authority on the site's marine life, water quality, coral reefs and oceanography.

Peter Espeut, executive director of the Caribbean Coastal Area Management (CCAM), which has responsibility for managing the Portland Bight Protected Area, agreed with Fisher and Garraway. What was required, he said, was for the NEPA to select the consultant and have the developer pay, as is the current practice, for the EIA.

"At the moment it is the developer that contracts and pays the consultant so the consultant is beholden to the contractor. Should the consultant recommend against the project or should the consultant develop the reputation for recommending against projects, they would find themselves short of work," he said.

"What should happen is that the government agency which is accountable to the people of Jamaica must hire the consultant so that the consultant is beholden to the people of Jamaica. The developer must pay for the consultant and that money in escrow to be paid upon satisfactory completion of the EIA."

Such a practice, he said, is one that would see the "best interests" of the environment and Jamaicans served.

"The NRCA is not incompetent but they are too susceptible to political influence," said Espeut. "The board members of the NRCA are politically appointed."

NEPA was formed in April of 2001, representing a composite of three existing organisations, including the NRCA, the Town Planning Department and the Land Development Utilisation Commission (LDUC). These agencies now function as boards, overseeing aspects of NEPA's operations while NEPA, as the agency employs the requisite technical and administrative staff to police the environment.

An advisory board to the NEPA was approved by Cabinet in January of this year, with its appointees including Milton Weise as chairman; James Rawle, as chairman of the NRCA; Reverend Oliver Daley; and Earl Patterson of the National Works Agency.

Also appointed were Professor Ronald Young of the Faculty of Pure and Applied Science at the UWI; Dr Allan Kirton and Ruth Potopsingh, group manager of the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica; as well as then permanent secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Donovan Stanberry.

Stanberry is now with the agriculture ministry.

Pressing his argument for increased transparency in NEPA's operations last week, Espeut said that there could be little question that the agency was staffed by competent people but said that they must be able to operate without even the appearance of political bias.

"I don't believe that in its history, the NRCA has succeeded in rejecting any project supported by the political directorate," he said. "Also, they seem to have a difficulty with enforcement."

Environmental advocate John Maxwell agreed with Espuet.

"It is not the staff they should blame, it is the board. What is happening is a matter of policy, and if the boards don't understand the environment, and it is clear they don't understand, this is the kind of foolishness that you get," he said, referring to the development at Pear Tree Bottom.

He added that the authorities needed to recognise and accept when the natural resources were over-stretched.

"There is a concept called carrying capacity. In a country with less than 500 miles of coastline and less than 40 miles of bathing beach, the people of Jamaica are being walled off from the sea...," he said.

"The country is becoming more and more of a total slum and nobody seems to understand that money is not everything."

Reacting to the criticism, Rawle denied suggestions that NRCA decisions have been made with political bias.

"I am chairman of a board and politics doesn't play a role in the decisions of a board. When I chair a board I try to be as objective as possible, based on the evidence presented and to take all issues in consideration," he said on Thursday.

"It can never be good to have these statements being made, but all I can tell you from where I sit is that we try to base our decisions on the scientific evidence that is presented to us."

The primary role of the NRCA is to protect the natural resources," he added.

NEPA's acting communications manager Zadie Neufville added that the agency made its decisions in collaboration with other state agencies sitting on a technical committee.

"We don't ask (applicants) what their political affiliation is and it is not our business," said Neufville.

"The decision of the board of the NRCA is subject to a ministerial appeal. If they want to call that political interference then so be it. But since we have done our work and passed it to the board, it is no longer the responsibility of the agency, but that of the appeals process. We are not concerned with politics, we are concerned with getting it right."

Fisher said, however, that with the development in the Pear Tree Bottom case, there perhaps needed to be more rigour in setting of the terms of reference.

"If I were in charge of an organisation where this happened, certainly those would be some of the issues we would have to be looking at. I don't know how NEPA would deal with that. I'm assuming those are issues that the new CEO (Dr Leary Myers) who has come in would have to look at," she said.

williamsp@jamaicaobserver.com

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