Mon | Jun 14, 2021

Bengal gets extension to pay $40m bond

Published:Sunday | January 24, 2021 | 12:16 AMJovan Johnson - Senior Staff Reporter
The Puerto Bueno Mountain in St Ann.
The Puerto Bueno Mountain in St Ann.

Bengal Development Limited, the company which was controversially granted an environment permit to mine in the ecologically sensitive Dry Harbour Mountains, also called the Puerto Bueno Mountain, has been given an extra 60 days to pay a $40-million bond to cover losses.

Bengal missed the January 17 deadline to pay the money, which is one of the 76 conditions of the amended permit issued by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) on December 17, 2020.

The Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA), for whom NEPA is the administrative arm, granted the new March 21 deadline following Bengal’s request on January 13, days before the initial due date, the agency said Friday in response to Sunday Gleaner queries.

Bengal wanted 90 days.

NEPA said the NRCA considered the request on January 19, and advised Bengal of the outcome the following day.

The Sunday Gleaner has asked NEPA for the reasons behind the NRCA’s decision, as well as for the arguments made by Bengal, a St Lucia-incorporated company owned by the little-known Florida-based Jamaica World LLC.

Although the reasons are unclear for the missed deadline, Bengal would have known about the bond from at least November 5, 2020, when the original permit was issued.

The Sunday Gleaner had received a copy of the first document from NEPA, which included the bond, although that particular condition was missing in the permit published by the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) on November 20.

OPM, which is responsible for NEPA, said it was the agency’s fault.

“The bond was always a requirement … . It’s omission from the November press release was an error. It was part of the document sent to the permittee (Bengal).”

HARSH CRITICISM

Prime Minister Andrew Holness has been harshly criticised for overturning the NRCA’s May 2020 decision to deny the permit for limestone mining in an area not zoned for quarrying and with endemic and endangered species.

He has also personally put his credibility on the line, declaring in St Ann last November: “I’m the first one to shut it down” if Bengal breached any of the conditions of the permit.

“We had an assurance from the prime minister … so, here we have a breach,” said Diana McCaulay, a director of the local environment lobby Jamaica Environment Trust.

She said the missed deadline and subsequent extension so early in the 20-year project raises questions about the authorities’ commitment to enforcing the conditions.

“It signals a not very serious approach to the enforcement of the permit conditions, which is a danger that we’ve always pointed to,” said McCaulay, who argued that without any knowledge that Bengal objected, the conditions should be assumed to be reasonable.

“What are the guarantees when the 60 days have expired that it won’t be extended again?” asked the environmentalist. “This is what happens when you just regard your permit conditions as flexible and always up for negotiations.”

PENALTY VARIES

The penalty for breaching the conditions, including missing a deadline varies, Peter Knight, the CEO of NEPA, told a parliamentary committee on January 13, the same day the state’s environment watchdog said it received the company’s extension request.

“The permit can be suspended, can be revoked or the permittee can, at any time, request an extension. That is how the law is,” Knight told the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), which had to curtail its planned grilling of NEPA and its parent company, the Economic Growth and Job Creation Ministry, because of the lawsuit residents have brought in opposition to the mining plans.

Claiming constitutional violations, the residents are pushing for a permanent injunction in the matter, which is expected to have its first hearing next month.

Several emails and phone messages sent to the only known spokesperson for Bengal, Kashif Sweet, who is also the managing partner for Jamaica World, have gone unanswered.

In addition to the $40 million, Bengal will soon have to dig deeper for cash should it be recommended for a licence by the Quarry Advisory Board.

Getting the licence is pre-conditioned on the payment of a restoration bond which, according officials documents, is calculated at $2.87 million per hectare, or $790,000 per acre.

That bond payment, however, is linked with acreage mined in phases so the full amount will not have to be paid up front.

Bengal has been permitted to mine 123 acres of its 569-acre St Ann property, which it plans to do in three phases.

This means that the company would pay $29 million in the first phase for 37 acres; $38.7 million in the second for 49 acres; and another $29 million for the rest.

A quarry application is being processed, Dr Alwin Hales, permanent secretary in the Mining and Transport Ministry, confirmed to the PAAC.

ENLIGHTENED DECISION

Holness has dismissed some of the criticisms, arguing that his administration took an “enlightened decision” made to protect the environment while ensuring economic development.

Approximately $635 million is projected as tax inflows, with 100 jobs expected.

The property, which has changed ownership at least three times since the late former Shower Posse gang leader Vivian Crawford bought it in 1989, contains over 335 million tons of limestone reserves and Bengal is proposing to mine 35 million.

There is no fixed timeline, however, on when the project will start.

jovan.johnson@gleanerjm.com