Chalillo Dam

Letter from Probe International to Stanley Marshall, President and CEO of Fortis Inc.

Patricia Adams
Probe International
September 30, 2009

Mr. Stanley Marshall
President and Chief Executive Officer
Fortis Inc.
PO Box 8837
Suite 1201, Fortis Building
139 Water Street
St. John’s, NL A1B 3T2
F: (709) 737-5307

Dear Mr. Marshall,

We are writing you about the sediment discharges from your company’s Chalillo dam on the Macal River in Belize.

As you know, aerial photographs released in August show that the dam is discharging sediment-laced water from the valve at the bottom of the structure. This sediment-laden water is causing turbidity levels downstream that are hundreds, if not thousands, of times higher than the standards set by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. University of Massachusetts microbiologist, Dr. Guy Lanza, calls it “inexcusable” and has urged that the release of sediment, which is threatening public health and the ecology of Belize’s river system, be halted immediately.

I expect that your staff has explained to you that turbidity contaminants are particularly dangerous because they hide disease-causing waterborne microbes (bacteria, viruses, protozoa) and interfere with the effectiveness of disinfection chemicals used to purify the water for drinking purposes. Turbidity contaminants also threaten the river ecology by blocking light from entering the river, which kills the photosynthesizing river plants, deprives the river of oxygen, and in turn kills fish and other aquatic life.

Satellite images and ground photographs also show that the sediment has traveled downstream and reached the Caribbean Sea where it has created a plume that is hugging the shoreline, causing problems for the seagrass beds.

You will remember that Probe International has long opposed the construction of the Chalillo dam on environmental and economic grounds. We regret that this latest incident of shock sediment discharges only adds to the long list of environmental damage done by this ill-fated dam. We feel it is incumbent on you to disclose operational data so that the public is properly informed about this siltation problem and so that measures can be taken to stop this contamination of the river. We also call on you to inform the public about how you are going to rectify this situation. Specifically:

1.According to the Environmental Compliance Plan:

“Section 2.12: To reduce the impacts of sedimentation on aquatic life and down stream users, during the operational phase of the dam as a result of the flushing of the reservoir, BECOL is required to notify the Department of the Environment of its intent to carry out this activity. The Department shall respond to BECOL within two weeks of receipt of notification, and no flushing will be permitted until the Department’s approval has been obtained,” and; 

“Sec. 3.07: BECOL shall ensure that releases for maintenance purposes from the proposed Chalillo reservoir, during the dry season, will be a minimum of 1m3/s or the natural inflow into the reservoir, whichever is less, ensuring that flows in the river downstream of Chalillo will be maintained at or above their natural levels for environmental purposes.”

Can you please tell me if BECOL notified the Department of the Environment of its intent to release sediment? Was the DOE’s approval given before the release took place? Please provide release data to demonstrate that BECOL complied with Section 3.07.

2.Could you please explain what action Fortis intends to take to immediately stop the discharge of these sediments and to limit the public health threat to downstream users and damage to the river and estuary ecology?

3.I understand the Minister of Public Utilities, Melvin Hulse, in conjunction with the National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO), intends to shut down the dam (i.e. not pass water through the valve and the powerhouse) and instead to pass the clear water over the spillway. Can you confirm this and explain if you are working with NEMO to accomplish this?

4.Once the threat has been curtailed, what measures does Fortis intend to take to clear the sediment from the reservoir so it will not be passed through and cause more damage in future?

5.Please explain if Fortis intends to compensate downstream users for their loss of use of the river for domestic, commercial or industrial purposes.

6.Please explain how Fortis intends to restore the river water quality so it is no longer a threat to communities downstream and to the river ecology.

7.Fortis is a publicly traded company. Can you describe what action Fortis has taken to inform its shareholders of the problems facing the dam and the potential government order to shut it down, and the consequences that these actions could have for earnings?

Lastly, BECOL has been running advertisements in Belize, one of which appeared in The Reporter in Belize on July 19, 2009 entitled  “BECOL Meets International Standards for Environmental Operations.” In that advertisement, BECOL claimed that the “Belize Electric Company Limited (BECOL) is only one of a few companies in Belize that is ISO14001 compliant, as it meets international standards for its environmental operations.” The ISO14001 is a generic management tool that is not specific to dams. As ISO explains, it is a public relations “tool that can be used to meet internal objectives,” such as “assur[ing] employees that they are working for an environmentally responsible organization,” as well providing assurance to external stakeholders, such as customers, the community and regulatory agencies by supporting the company’s “claims and communication about its own environmental policies, plans and actions.”

The ISO is explicit in pointing out that this certification does not mean BECOL met a specific level of environmental performance.  Clearly, BECOL has failed utterly to meet an acceptable level of environmental performance at Chalillo. Further, BECOL has not given the Belizean public assurances about its policies regarding the damaging release of sediment, its plans for the cessation of these releases, and its plans for remediation and compensation of damages caused downstream. 

We look forward to your early response to these important matters of public concern.
Yours sincerely,

Patricia Adams
Executive Director
Probe International

Cc: Roger Frost, Manager, Communication Services, ISO

Categories: Chalillo Dam

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