At this point, it seems unlikely that AECON Group Inc., the Canadian firm constructing the new port in Kingstown will be allowed to dredge material from the waters off the south east coast of St Vincent.
Minister of Finance Camillo Gonsalves explained on Monday that as part of the port modernization project, a significant amount of land reclamation has to take place in the Kingstown/Rose Place area.
“That means that fill material has to be sourced and placed along the coast, in much the same way that land was reclaimed to build the administrative complex while Prime Minister Mitchell was in office,” Gonsalves told SEARCHLIGHT.
However, fisherfolk from the East St George community where AECON wants to dredge, are pushing back, arguing last week that a move to dredge in the area will negatively impact the marine life, damaging their livelihood.
Gonsalves said AECON is currently seeking to source the fill material from a large underwater deposit of sand about 800 meters off the coast of Brighton and Argyle on the south east coast of St Vincent.
He said that administratively, AECON sought and received conditional planning approval to extract the material.
“However, when the Cabinet became aware of the issue, the Ministers had many questions related to the potential environmental and social impact of the activity.
Chief among these concerns was the impact on the replenishment of the sand dunes at Brighton Bay; the impact on the revetments and sea defences off the Argyle airport; the impact on marine life and biodiversity; and the impact on fisherfolk,” Gonsalves said.
He said Cabinet was shown an environmental and social assessment that left many questions unanswered and as such, Cabinet requested answers and clarifications from their technical team.
“To their credit, AECON has been working with our project implementation team to provide answers. There are a number of technical questions about sand replenishment, depth, wave height and bathymetry that are being studied by our engineers.
“Consultations are taking place among fisherfolk to ascertain impact, and video footage from dives in the area is being studied,” the finance minister said.
He stressed that the Government’s general position is that while The Physical Planning Unit gave conditional approval, the seabed is a resource of the State, and no agreement has been reached with AECON about selling that amount of sand, from that location.
The Finance minister said that conditional planning approval cannot compel a sale of the resource and the government will move deliberately, after studying all the data and taking into account the various social and environmental concerns, to see whether the proposed location is optimal; or whether another location is preferable in all the circumstances.
“The port is an important component of our national development plans. We are committed to constructing the port expeditiously. However, we are equally committed to building the port in an environmentally sustainable manner, with as small an impact as possible on our ecosystem and the livelihoods of Vincentians,” Gonsalves told SEARCHLIGHT.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves also spoke about the issue on radio on Sunday, stressing also that AECON has not been granted permission to dredge.
“…Anybody who says there has been a decision is wrong,” the Prime Minister said, arguably in relation to a comment allegedly made by an AECON official last week during a consultation, that they had received permission to dredge and would commence sometime in March.
The Prime Minister said that he has not yet been persuaded to allow dredging in the area and everyone must be given a fair hearing in the matter.
SEARCHLIGHT was unable to reach AECON’s Senior Project Manager Tam Smith who is reported to have told fishermen during a consultation in Calliaqua last week that dredging in the area would not damage the ecosystem.
However, commenting on WE FM on Monday, January 23, environmentalist, Andrew Simmons, said while no one is against development, there must be a balance between development and care for the environment.
He said that the government should not provide a permit unless the necessary environmental impact assessment study is done by an independent agency.
Simmons said he has worked and studied the area for the last 45 years and there are coral reefs and sea grass on the sea bed.
“And we know how important the coral reef and the sea grass are in terms of helping to deal with climate change,” Simmons said while noting that the mangrove swamps have been completely destroyed in the area so it is now more important to preserve the sea bed.
“If you going to start to dredge that area, it means you’re pulling everything that is there that you know is stopping…a kind of resistance for the sea to come in,” Simmons said.
He said that dredging will remove a natural barrier that is there to stop the sea and it will destroy land area in the communities and that is dangerous.
Simmons said when we are talking about environment, we are talking about livelihoods.