September 30, 2009
International aid and trade watchdog, Probe International, is asking Stanley Marshall, President and CEO of the Newfoundland-based power company Fortis Inc., to start accounting to the people of Belize and its shareholders about contamination of the Macal and Belize Rivers in Belize by the company’s Chalillo dam.
Aerial photographs released in early August show that the dam is discharging sediment-laced water and contaminating the downstream river with turbidity levels hundreds, if not thousands, of times higher than the standards set by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The contamination has now reached the Caribbean Sea.
Turbidity contaminants are especially worrying, says Patricia Adams, the author of the letter and Executive Director of Probe International, because they allow bacteria, viruses, and protozoa to thrive, presenting a public health risk to populations downstream. The river ecology is also at risk as photosynthesizing plants are deprived of oxygen, which in turn can kill fish and other aquatic life.
In her letter, Ms. Adams calls on Mr. Marshall to disclose immediately how Fortis intends to stop passing the heavy sediment load downstream and if Fortis will compensate local residents for the economic setback and health hazards that have resulted from the river contamination.
Belize officials responsible for public utilities and emergencies have discussed the possibility of shutting the Chalillo dam down, forcing it to pump water over the spillway instead of passing water through its lower level outlet or through the powerhouse which generates nearly 4 MW of power. Ms. Adams asks Stanley Marshall if Fortis shareholders have been informed of this possibility and the effect that a shutdown would have on earnings.
Ms. Adams also notes that Fortis’s subsidiary, the Belize Electric Company Limited (BECOL), which owns and operates Chalillo, has been running ads in Belize extolling the company’s ISO environment-compliant credentials. She points out that ISO14001 is a generic management tool that is not specific to dams, and according to ISO, is largely a public relations “tool that can be used to meet internal objectives,” as well as providing assurance to external stakeholders by supporting the company’s “claims and communication about its own environmental policies, plans and actions.”
“It was clear from the get-go that this dam was going to cause extensive and irreversible harm to Belize’s environment. Fortis was well aware of the environmental controversy,” Ms. Adams said.
Probe International, and an international coalition of environmental groups, fought to stop construction of the Chalillo dam beginning in 2000 because it would destroy a crucial habitat for endangered species such as the Scarlet Macaw, the Baird’s tapir and jaguars. They took their fight all the way to the British Privy Council, Belize’s highest court of appeal, where they lost by a close vote.
The groups exposed shocking flaws in the company’s geological surveys: those studies stated that geological base of the dam was granite when in fact it was sandstones inter-bedded with soft shales, and that the maps failed to report geological faults and fractures in the project area, including the 30-kilometre long Comma Cairn Fault which is large enough to be visible from satellite images of Belize.
Categories: Chalillo Dam