July 10, 2002
Canadian power company Fortis Inc.’s controversial plan to build a hydro dam in one of Central America’s last undisturbed rainforests has been stalled due to legal action by local environmental groups.
Road construction to the dam site halted earlier this year when consumer and environmental advocates filed two lawsuits challenging the Belize government’s approval of the Chalillo hydro dam.
In a bizarre twist, when the first lawsuit went before Belize’s Supreme Court last month, Belize authorities claimed they had not yet approved the dam’s construction and could not be accused of any wrongdoing. Lawyers for the Belize Electric Company (BECOL), a subsidiary of Newfoundland-based Fortis and the proponent of the dam, admitted that BECOL does not have a license to operate and has not applied for permission to build the dam.
Belize’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) – the regulatory agency responsible for licensing power producers and protecting consumer interests – said only that it had approved a power purchase agreement for the dam but not its construction.
As a result, Supreme Court Justice Christopher Blackman dismissed the lawsuit as "premature."
Appealing the ruling, the consumer and environmental groups known collectively as the Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs (BACONGO), argue that the PUC’s approval of a power purchase agreement is illegal. BACONGO wants the agreement declared void because the PUC failed to hold public hearings and invite competitive bids from private power suppliers, as required by the country’s electricity act.
A second lawsuit, challenging the government’s environmental clearance of the dam, is scheduled to be heard next week.
Ambrose Tillet, a Belize energy expert and advisor to BACONGO, told Gráinne Ryder of Toronto-based environmental group Probe International, he is extremely disappointed by the judge’s ruling.
"The Public Utilities Commission is required by law to protect ratepayers from monopoly abuse by holding public hearings and inviting competitive bids from potential suppliers before approving any new power projects," said Mr. Tillet.
"Instead, the PUC rubber-stamped a backroom deal that gives Fortis the monopoly power to overcharge Belizean ratepayers for unreliable hydro and deny us access to more competitive suppliers."
But Mr. Tillet praised Justice Blackman for ordering the Fortis-owned Belize Electric Company to release all project contracts signed for the Chalillo dam. "Belizeans can now judge for themselves if the Chalillo dam serves their interests," he said.
Fortis has come under fire from environmentalists in Belize, Canada, Mexico, and the United States, over its plans to build the Chalillo dam on a remote stretch of Belize’s Macal River. The area provides Belize’s only known nesting sites for scarlet macaws as well as critical habitat for tapirs, howler monkeys, jaguars, and other threatened and endangered wildlife.
Critics, including Probe International, argue that Belize has better, cheaper generating options than the paltry few megawatts the Chalillo dam could provide, weather permitting.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, and a copy of the project contracts signed by Fortis president Stanley Marshall, CONTACT;
Gráinne Ryder, Policy Director, Probe International, Canada
Tel. (416) 964-9223, ext. 228, or e-mail email@example.com.
Or visit our Web site at www.ProbeInternational.org
Categories: Chalillo Dam
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