Chalillo Dam

Fighting for compliance again: Belize’s Macal River

(February 28, 2014) Candy and George Gonzalez from the Belize Institute of Environmental Law and Policy (BELPO) — longtime champions of Belize’s Macal River and active monitors of the controversial Canadian-owned Chalillo dam and its impacts on the river — say they are again trying to press various Belize government departments to adhere to the Environmental Compliance Plan agreed to for the project. Under the plan, the Macal’s water and fish require regular testing and the results published to protect public health and safety. At present, the Gonzalez’s say public health is in danger from high mercury levels in fish caught in the Macal and high levels of E. coli in the river’s water, but the departments responsible for implementing the project’s risk management program are not doing their job.

The newspaper report below by Belize’s independent Amandala newspaper on high levels of mercury in Macal River fish, and issues concerning river water quality, is followed by a letter to the editor by Candy Gonzalez, the president and secretary of the Belize Environmental Institute of Law and Policy (BELPO), who is quoted for the article. In her letter, she corrects and clarifies some of the information given.

Bay Snook Mercury Risk in Macal: BELPO

By Adele Ramos for Amandala.com, published on February 11, 2014

Candy and George Gonzalez, who are the president and secretary of the Belize Environmental Institute of Law and Policy (BELPO), told Amandala today that latest official information provided to them at the end of 2013 indicates that mercury levels of bay snook (Petenia splendida) and other local fish caught in the Macal, are still above the safe levels and people in the area should take heed to the health risks, such as mercury poisoning, which could come from eating such fish.

They said that it is not just the fish that is the problem, but an increase in rashes and stomach ailments from contact with the river water  either through swimming in the water or imbibing it.

BELPO president Candy Gonzalez said that the E. coli level in the water was so high that nobody should drink the water or be in the water.

“People should know about the water. This is water that the people drink, Gonzalez said.

On Tuesday, Amandala spoke with John Bodden, Senior Public Health Inspector, on the issue; and he told us that they have no current data and are awaiting official information from the Department of the Environment (DoE).

Amandala was made to understand from an official of the DoE that since the Chalillo project is more than five years old, data reports on mercury levels are now provided once annually. The most recent data we have seen dates back to May 2013, and indicates that indeed, the mercury level of the snook is above normal.

This has been a concern for several years. For example, in June 2010, a scientific analysis recorded a mercury level in the bay snook of 1.34 mg/kg almost three times the recommended limits for consumption. The level has since subsided, but remains above the permitted level.

Gonzalez said that because of comments from the DoE that the mercury level in the fish had gone down, people got a false sense of comfort that they could eat the fish.

The DoE confirms that area residents should continue to be careful about eating much fish from the river; however, we could not get any information on exactly how many ounces of snook per week is safe for an average person.

Health authorities have suggested other foods useful for replacing the Omega acids lost as a consequence of reduced fish consumption. They include flaxseed, pumpkin (pepitos), sesame (wangla seed), sunflower seeds, cashew nuts, avocados, spinach or collards greens, oils from flaxseed, corn, olive and soybean, and omega acid supplements.

Gonzalez said that BELPO had gotten Guy R. Lanza, Ph.D., Aquatic Ecologist/Environmental Microbiologist at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry, State University of New York (SUNY), to prepare a report based on the data. That report, she said, was provided to the Minister of Health, the CEO in the Ministry of Health and the office responsible for health services, who said that the data provided over the years “are best characterized as vague and incomplete, and thus of very limited value in interpreting the state of the water quality at the sample sites, and the real risk to the public health of water users and the natural biota.”

The BELPO reps also said that due to a decline in river tourism, which they said has come as a consequence of the hydro facilities on the Macal, there have been economic impacts which have exacerbated the crime situation.


The Levels of Mercury Remain High

Published by Amandala.com on February 14, 2014

Dear Editor,

The Amandala article entitled “Bay snook mercury risk in Macal: BELPO” (Wednesday, February 12, 2014) covered the high levels of mercury in the fish in the Macal River as well as issues of water quality. The article reported that the “Amandala was made to understand from an official of the DoE that since the Chalillo project is more than five years old, data reports on mercury levels are now provided once annually. The most recent data we have seen dates back to May 2013, and indicates that indeed, the mercury level of the snook is above normal.”

This is not accurate. The Environmental Compliance Plan for the Chalillo project states that: To prevent potential health effects to fish consumers, a risk management program will be put in place during the period of elevated mercury levels (i.e., for five years or until background levels are achieved). [emphasis added]

In case the DOE needs an interpretation, that means that testing continues as long as the levels of mercury remain high, which they are! Mercury in fish is not detectable by smell or taste. It cannot be cooked out of the fish. High levels of mercury in the body lead to neurological (nerve) problems in people, especially pregnant women and children. It is not to be taken lightly.

The same is true with water quality. The ECP states: “A water quality and quantity monitoring program must be established to monitor all relevant water quality parameters . . . over an extended period of time. A copy of the water quality monitoring program shall be submitted to the Hydrology Unit of the Meteorology Department and DOE for approval, and the results of the monitoring program submitted to the Hydrology Unit and the Department of the Environment on a weekly basis for the first two years after the filling of the reservoir or until water quality parameters stabilize and on a quarterly basis thereafter.” [emphasis added]

This is the responsibility of the DOE, the Ministry of Health and the Hydrology Unit. They are supposed to be looking out for the people of Belize! This is important information that needs to be shared with the public. Why aren’t they doing this?

Candy Gonzalez, J.D.
for BELPO

For more on the Chalillo Dam and Macal River controversy, see the Probe International news archive here.

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2 replies »

  1. Have there been any recent water test results published by the Chalillo damn owners? Have they responded to your letter from 2014?

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