August 11, 2002
Belize Electric Company Limited (BECOL), is awaiting the Supreme Court’s ruling on Government’s approval of the Environmental Impact Assessment for the construction of the Chalillo dam.
The Supreme Court Hearing into the case, filed against the Government of Belize by internationally-backed protestors who are set on neutralizing GOB’s approval of the Chalillo Hydroelectric Project, concluded last Wednesday, July 31, 2002, and a ruling is expected to be made by Chief Justice Abdulai Conteh by September, when the Supreme Court is to resume its sessions. The hearing began in mid-July, weeks after the Supreme Court ruled to not hear a former suit, filed by the same protestors – the Belize Alliance of Conservation NGO’s (BACONGO), backed by the influential USA-based National Resource Defense Council (NDRC) – who sought a judicial review of an approval made by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) of a Third Master Agreement that is to govern the sale of power by the Belize Electric Company Limited (BECOL), which is to develop Chalillo, to the Belize Electricity Limited (BEL). BACONGO has since appealed that ruling.
The Third Master Agreement is said to oblige BEL to give preference to BECOL’s hydro facilities Mollejon and the proposed Chalillo — in purchasing the power it needs to supply energy to its customers; BACONGO and other opponents argue that that law is against the free spirit of competition.
Both BECOL and BEL are almost fully owned by Fortis Incorporated, the Canadian company that has been targeted by the protestors, who have launched an international campaign in an attempt to get Fortis to abandon the project they claim makes neither environmental nor economic sense. The controversy has even caught the attention of National Geographic, and the protestors have also won the support of renowned personalities such as actor Harrison Ford and artist Robert Bateman.
Over the past two weeks, attorneys Dean Barrow and Lois Young-Barrow have been arguing the case for BACONGO, while attorney Michael Young, has been arguing on behalf of the respondents — the Department of the Environment (DOE) and the National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC), which gave conditional approval for Chalillo on November 9 last year — two days alter a crowd of about 400 demonstrated against the proposed dam.
In an interview with the press last week, Barrow explained that the litigants are arguing that (i.) NEAC, in considering the 150-page EIA submitted by BECOL, the developer, was guilty of “procedural flaws,” and (ii.) the project is so riddled with “environmental difficulties” that NEAC was “wrong” to have given approval. Barrow said that the complainants also hold that NEAC failed to consider the public’s comments on the issue.
A critical bone of contention is the allegation that certain public consultations that were to have been held alter the conditional approval but before the final Environmental Compliance Plan (ECP), signed between the DOE and BECOL on April 5, 2002, were never carried out.
The EIA report, released last September, admits that “information deficiencies and the unproven and limited effectiveness of the identified mitigative measures” would cause significant adverse impacts on the environment. The DOE, under the advice of NEAC, has stipulated mitigation measures in the final ECP, and the newspaper understand that BECOL hopes to commence a public awareness campaign to educate the public on the EIA and required mitigation measures shortly. However, these consultations have been stalled pending the outcome of the present Supreme Court case.
An application for leave to apply for judicial review of the Chalillo project was filed in early February, 2002, and on February 28, Conteh agreed to hear the case, lodged jointly by BACONGO and the Belize Eco-tourism Association, Belize Zoo’s Sharon Matola and Eligono Sho of Punta Gorda. The team had previously retained the services of attorney Marilyn Williams, who has since been replaced by the team of Young-Barrow and Barrow, which work out of separate law firms.
When asked to comment on Chalillo as a politician and not as an attorney, Barrow said that he has a problem with both the project and the approval process. He thinks the project is a bad one for Belize, and believes that there are better development options that could be pursued.
“Must Chalillo be the vehicle?” he questioned, adding that the dam would flood large expanses of pristine habitat, including a portion of the Chiquibu: Forest Reserve, which, if the project goes through, may have to be partially de-reserved to accommodate Chalillo. Speaking with Amandala today, BECOL’s spokesperson, Dawn Sampson, insisted that Chalillo is the most economic option. She explained, however, that BEL could not guarantee that Chalillo would result in lower rates, but that it would mean the cheapest possible rates to consumers. Sampson argues that the proposed 11.5 cents per kWh is the lowest cost of power based on the various options explored. She also said that with a growing energy demand, Belize needs to add Chalillo, as well as other sources, to its energy supply mix.
BEL is not planning on wind generation at this time. Sampson said that wind energy studies conducted for BEL by ReTech International Limited of Alaska have indicated that with the exception of Baldy Beacon and Half Moon Caye, nowhere in Belize continually produces the required 25 mile-per-hour winds to make the operation worthwhile, using the existing technology.
On the other hand, she said that talks are ongoing with the Belize Sugar Industries for a bagasse cogeneration project. The company is also in the process of reviewing bids from potential independent power producers (IPP) to supply up to 18 MW of additional power, and BEL is hoping to renew the power purchase agreement it has with Comision Federal de Electricidad (CFE) of Mexico in 2006.
BECOL had hoped that construction of the US$30 million. 7 MW hydro project would have commenced this January — seven months ago. They have already missed this year’s dry season, so the initial plan to commence operations in 2004 has already been delayed.
Site construction work will have to await the conclusion of the matter in court. BECOL says that it is not certain what it would do if the ruling does not turn out in its favor, as costly legal fees could overburden the economics of the Chalillo initiative.
Meanwhile, BACONGO’s director, Jamillah Vasquez, has said that they are prepared to carry the lawsuit as far as it takes “to get justice.”