Sat | May 28, 2022

Editorial | PM must explain Bengal contortion

Published:Wednesday | January 19, 2022 | 12:08 AM

THE DEVIL, as this newspaper is wont to remind, is usually in the details. That is why, last May, we warned against any popping of the champagne on Robert Montague’s news that the company that wants to mine limestone in the ecologically sensitive Dry Harbour Mountains at Bengal, near Rio Bueno, on Jamaica’s north coast, had been offered, and was actually looking at, alternative sites.

As it turns out, nothing changed and the Holness administration appears to be putting itself through extreme contortions to ensure Bengal Development Limited can, over two decades, extract their 40 million tonnes of calcium carbonate (limestone) from the area. Andrew Holness, as prime minister and minister for the environment, is obliged to explain why. He has to ensure that whatever happens passes the smell test.

In November 2020, it seeped out that Mr Holness, as the portfolio minister for the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), and possessing the authority to adjudicate appeals against NEPA’s decisions, had reversed the agency’s refusal to grant Bengal Development an environmental permit to mine in the Dry Harbour Mountains. NEPA was concerned that the company’s activities would destroy endemic species of flora and fauna.

In the face of an outcry from environmentalists and residents, Mr Holness announced that he had amended the permit by inserting 76 conditions to which Bengal Development would have to abide. One of those obligations was that Bengal post a $40-million bond to repair any damage it caused to the environment. Mr Holness insisted he would be “the first one to shut it down” if Bengal Development failed in its commitments.

MOVING AHEAD DESPITE RED FLAGS

Bengal was given until January 17, 2021, to post the bond. It failed. The deadline was extended to March 21, 2021. Bengal failed again – a fact publicly acknowledged by NEPA on March 30 last year. Bengal, NEPA admitted, was “in breach of permit conditions”.

That might have been expected to be the end of that. It was not.

It was near the end of May 2021 that Mr Montague, then the mining minister, told Parliament about the possible trade with Bengal Development for “suitable lands with the same or better quality limestone”. While that sounded like a responsive government reacting to the voice of the people, and displaying common sense, The Gleaner warned those invested in the matter against premature celebrations. It is about the fine print. We were, it seems, right.

Last week, this newspaper revealed that Bengal’s suspended (if indeed it was) permit has been reinstated. The company was now awaiting its formal licence to mine. Abe Dabdoub, Bengal’s lawyers, reported that the $40-million bond was posted on June 7, 2021 – approximately six months after the initial date. Bengal had also paid its mining licence fee of US$35,000 per hectare. If calculated on the 20 hectares the company planned to mine, this amounts to US$700,000 – approximately $109.2 million at the current exchange rate.

Several observations are pertinent. First, Bengal has not publicly disclosed why it did not post the bond on time, which leads to the not unreasonable assumption that it did not have the money.

If it took six months for a company that is planning to undertake a venture of the type promoted by Bengal half a year to scrounge up $40 million, or less than US$260,000, that is not a stellar recommendation. Of course, the company will rightly point to the fact that it also had the cash to pay for its mining licence. It has some explaining to do.

It hardly ever bodes well for future relations when a private company entering a business requiring government regulation starts in the fashion in which Bengal seems to be beginning. Usually, it is not the private company that ends up with the smelly end of the stick. And even if taxpayers escape a bad end, the experience is still likely to be trying. Jamaica has had many of this kind.

Further, it is worth reminding that the residents of the Bengal community were given the go-ahead by a Supreme Court judge to pursue a constitutional case against Bengal Development’s plan to mine in the Dry Harbour Mountains and the PM’s decision to overrule NEPA’s initial refusal of the environmental permit. The Government has appealed this ruling on the grounds that the residents had an alternative remedy: a judicial review, rather than a constitutional action. That matter should not be short-circuited.

We recall that Bengal highlighted in its environmental impact assessment the amount of taxes Jamaica was likely to receive from its venture. Mr Holness also spoke enticingly about a major development on some of the hundreds of Dry Harbour Mountains land owned by Bengal but will not go to mining. But environmentalists and nearby residents still foresee an ecological crisis.

In the circumstances, Mr Holness must explain why he did not pull the plug on the project after Bengal’s deadline breaches, and why the administration appears to be engaged in a display of which a talented limbo dancer, possessing cartilage where muscle should be, would be justly proud.