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WeBAD says Chalillo concerns still linger

Adele Ramos Daly
Amandala
November 22, 2005

Belize: Last week, the Belize Electric Company Limited (BECOL) commissioned the US$34 million, 7-megawatt Chalillo dam and announced that the new hydro-facility had become fully operational.

On the heels of this announcement, as well as reports that the Belize Electricity Limited (BEL), which will buy Chalillo’s power, would seek at least a 10% hike in rates, a husband and wife team of environmentalists, George and Candy Gonzalez, contacted the media about their lingering concerns over the dam.

While BEL and BECOL say that the dam is good for Belizeans, the Gonzalezes argue that it is bad. They contend that the risks associated with Chalillo are too great, and Belizeans would end up paying considerable money for the dam – far more than we are being told.

“We’re concerned about the health of people; the lives of people. We’re concerned that none of these issues have been given the kind of importance that human life deserves. That, to us, is most important than the cost,” said Candy Gonzalez, who sat on the National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC} when a majority of its members approved the Chalillo project.

Speaking with Amandala today, they said that they are concerned about the health and safety of the river and the community.

The Gonzalezes say that while the dam is now in place, they think that people need to know what the negative impacts of the developmental project are likely to be. One concern they raised is the potential impact of the river’s ecology, which they claim would hurt the district’s river tourism sector.

“The problem is the place where the dam is being put. There are a lot better places to put the dam without costing so much and sacrificing so much . . .” Mrs. Gonzalez continued, adding that the structure sits on a fault line. It is possible for an earthquake to rock the area again, causing the dam to break, she added.

They maintain that there is the possibility of the dam breaking or flooding due to excessive rains or even a hurricane, which they say would cause devastating effects for communities downstream.

The couple further says that Mexican power and bagasse cogeneration are other power options that should have been pursued more aggressively than Chalillo. Instead, BEL pushed ahead been pursued more aggressively than project, undertaken by its sister company. Both BEL and BECOL are subsidiaries’ of Fortis Inc. of Canada, though the Social Security Board has a 25% stake in BEL.

“According to the third master agreement, they state in there that the company does not have to have liability insurance. If anything were to happen, nobody would have recourse from Fortis or the Government,” said Candy Gonzalez. “We felt it was important for them to do what is stated in Environmental Compliance Plan – that is, to develop an emergency preparedness plan before they start generating electricity.”

The Gonzalezes also say that there is already a problem with mercury levels in fish in the area, and they have written to health authorities expressing their concerns.

In an interview with Amandala last week, BEL’s CEO and BECOL director, Lynn Young, told us that they have done all they can to mitigate against the environmental impacts of Chalillo, though he conceded that the issue of mercury being found in the fish is a real concern.

According to Young, tests done on the river fish in the area even before Chalillo was constructed indicated levels of mercury above internationally acceptable limits. He further said that people in the area don’t eat very much fish from the river, anyway.

The Gonzalezes say that they speak for two groups in the Cayo District, where the dam is located. The groups are WeBAD – We Belizeans Against the Dam, and BELPO – the Belize Institute. of Environmental Law and Policy. According to George Gonzalez, the name WeBAD was inspired by writings in the Amandala about UBAD – the United Black Association for Development. It is a group of about 20 locals, including tour guides who host a talk show in San Ignacio, Cayo.

BELPO is a group of about 20 professionals, according to Candy Gonzalez. It was registered as an NGO in 1995 and is a member of BACONGO, the Belize Alliance of Conservation NGO’s, which fought BECOL over Chalillo all the way to the Privy Council, but lost.

Gonzalez had also sat on NEAC for BACONGO. The couple are naturalized Belizeans, originally from the United States.

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