Archive | March, 2013

PM Warned: $30m Nygard Lease Will Be ‘Bad Precedent’

By Neil Hartnell
Bahamas Tribune

The Prime Minister has been warned that leasing $30 million worth of Crown Land to Lyford Cay billionaire, Peter Nygard, would set a “dangerous precedent”, given doubts over whether the Government has ever issued approvals for its reclamation.

The newly-formed Coalition to Protect Clifton Bay told Mr Christie, in a March 25 letter, that any agreement to lease the reclaimed seabed at Nygard Cay to the Canadian fashion mogul risked legitimising construction activities that had never been permitted in the first place.

This, the non-profit organization warned, would encourage others to engage in similar behaviour, effectively undermining the rule of law and the Bahamian regulatory system.

The letter, written by Callender & Co.’s attorney and partner, Fred Smith, QC, questioned why the Attorney General’s Office appeared to be making no progress in efforts to overturn a default judgment Mr Nygard obtained from the Supreme Court over the seabed reclamation.

On the Coalition’s behalf, the well-known QC also queried why the Christie administration was not holding Mr Nygard to the requirements of a July 21, 2010, letter in which the Government demanded he return Nygard Cay’s seabed and coastline to the condition it was in when he bought the property in 1984.

And, in a separate letter sent directly to Mr Nygard and his Nygard Cay Resort, Mr Smith and the Coalition urged him to “cease and desist” from ongoing construction activities at his property. They also warned that any permits obtained from the Government would be subject to a Judicial Review challenge in the Bahamian courts.

Tracing the dispute’s history, Mr Smith said in his letter to the Prime Minister that “numerous letters” had been sent to Mr Nygard pre-2009, asserting the Government’s rights as owner of the foreshore and seabed surrounding Nygard Cay.

These letters, he added, detailed “various incidents of unauthorised dredging or works undertaken outside the authority granted for such works”, and required Mr Nygard to “cease and desist”.

Tex Turnquest, former director of lands and surveys, asked the billionaire to restore Nygard Cay’s coastline to its original 1984 boundary in January 2009. That December, the matter was referred to other government departments and ministries, resulting in a July 21, 2010, letter, from then-permanent secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, David Davis, to Mr Nygard.

This, according to Mr Smith, required Mr Nygard “to remove all structures built by him on the wrongfully reclaimed land, and to remove the groynes built on the seabed, in order that the coastline be restored to the 1984 boundary”.

Mr Nygard allegedly wrote back on August 25, 2010, agreeing to comply with these terms. However, Mr Smith and the Coalition told Mr Christie: “Despite confirmation that Mr Nygard would comply with the clear and unambiguous government requests, Mr Nygard then instituted….. legal proceedings, and even proceeded to commence construction of a new groyne in 2012, without apparently seeking any fresh approval.

“We note that Mr Nygard entered a default judgment against the Crown, but the Attorney General has since applied to set aside the judgment. It appears, however, that the Attorney General’s application is not being progressed, and no other action has been taken to enforce the requirements of the letter of July 21, 2010.”

Reminding Mr Christie that he, as minister responsible for Crown lands, had the job of ensuring Mr Nygard complied with the July 21, 2010, letter, the Coalition expressed concern that the Government was now considering whether to grant the Canadian billionaire a lease of the reclaimed land.

This was something the former Ingraham administration had resolutely refused to do, and Mr Smith’s letter said: “The Coalition is concerned and surprised at this development, particularly in light of the Government’s position in the pending litigation that the reclamation activities by Mr Nygard have been executed without authorisation or, alternatively, authority granted and without any apparent regard for the environment.”

Pointing out that the law required Crown Land grants to be made in the Bahamas’ interests, Mr Smith asked the Prime Minister to explain how this was so with regard to Nygard Cay’s reclaimed land. This, the Coalition is alleging, has increased Nygard Cay’s size from 3.25 acres in 1984 to 6.1 acres today.

“The leasing of the reclaimed land to Mr Nygard would have the following effects,” Mr Smith alleged. “It would create an unfortunate precedent by appearing to publicly sanction (indeed, reward) Mr Nygard’s acts in reclaiming the reclaimed land in a manner detrimental to the marine environment of the Bahamas and without authorization.

“It would encourage such behaviour in the future in Mr Nygard and in others. On any view, therefore, the Coalition believes that the leasing of the reclaimed land cannot be described as being in the interest of the Bahamas……..

“The Coalition is particularly concerned that Mr Nygard appears to be determined to carry out construction work as he wishes, both on his land and on Crown Land that he does not even own, without following the statutory procedures and without any regard to the environment and marine life.”

The Coalition’s actions are likely to have several effects. A prolonged legal battle with Mr Nygard seems likely, and the Canadian billionaire and his advisers will probably view the matter as the latest salvo in his ongoing feud with fellow Lyford Cay billionaire, Louis Bacon.

As pointed out by Tribune Business yesterday, Mr Bacon – Mr Nygard’s Lyford Cay neighbour – is a member of the Coalition. Yet it has numerous other prominent members, including Kathleen Sullivan-Sealey, associate professor at the Department of Biology, University of Miami; Robert F. Kennedy Jr., founder and chairman of the Waterkeeper Alliance; Bennet Atkinson, Clifton Heritage Authority; Nicholas F. Brady, former US treasury secretary; Romauld Ferreira, environmental attorney, Ferreira & Co; and Craig Symonette, chairman, Bahamas Ferries.

The Coalition’s move, and likely public response, will probably thwart – at least for the time being – any Crown Land lease deal between the Government and Mr Nygard. It will also put Mr Christie where he least likes to be – between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

Mr Smith and the Coalition have also written to numerous other Cabinet ministers and government officials in a bid to determine what permits and approvals have been issued to Mr Nygard. They are trying to conclude whether the Planning and Subdivision Act, Building Regulations Act and Coastal Protection Act have been breached.

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Oil Spills Are ‘Very Serious’ Threat To Gb Residents

By Denise Maycock
Bahamas Tribune

The recent oil spills and odour from industrial companies on Grand Bahama have become a “very serious” threat to residents in the Pinder’s Point area, according to a well known resident and former FNM MP.

Maurice Moore, a former MP for High Rock and Bahamian Ambassador, in an exclusive interview with The Tribune said the only real solution would be a permanent relocation of the settlement.

“The government needs to demand of the people doing the refinery, and to a lesser extent the Power Company and Pharmachem that they make necessary provisions to move the people from this area,” he said.

Last Sunday, there was an oil spill in waters off Pinder’s Point.

In a statement issued by BORCO officials, divers were inspecting marine growth and debris surrounding their terminal’s cooling water effluent line when a volume of less than two gallons of oil was dislodged. Emergency crews recovered the oil.

In February, another oil spill occurred that resulted in the release of approximately 20 gallons of oil.

There have been other incidents over the years, some involving spills by vessels in the area.

Mr Moore, who lives in Pinder’s Point, said in addition to chemical emissions, oil spills have been an ongoing problem for many years in that community.

“We experience odours, and all along the coastline now you got oil spills; almost every couple of days stuff is showing up along the coastline…”

“This whole situation has become a very serious matter,” the former MP said.

During the pre-independence service last Sunday at Jubilee Cathedral, Bishop Godfrey Williams brought to the Prime Minister’s attention the high incidents of cancer among residents in the area.

Mr Moore said he understands that the government will conduct a scientific investigation to determine whether there is some correlation to the industrial plants.

Because of the continuing chemical emissions from the nearby industrial plants, the Lewis Yard Primary School was relocated in September to the St Vincent de Paul School campus in Hunters.

The expansion of the oil storage facility and the proximity of oil tanks to the homes in the area is another major issue, Mr Moore said.

BORCO, which is owned by Buckeye, is the largest storage terminal facility in the Caribbean region. It stores, blends, and transships bunker fuel oil, crude oil and various petroleum products. It currently has 21.6 million barrels of storage capacity.

Mr Moore claims that jet fuel and gasoline are being stored in huge storage tanks that are in close proximity to homes.

“They have put these huge storage tanks within 100ft-200ft of people’s homes, and they are storing in them jet fuel and gasoline; this is very dangerous and something has to be done,” he said.

Pointing out that a class-action lawsuit would be a last resort, Mr Moore said he has been working with the Pinder’s Point Committee, Grand Bahama Minister Dr Michael Darville, who is the MP for the area, in putting information together concerning the cost of moving residents out of the area.

“We have sent it to the government. There is no (other) real solution short of moving the people from this area; we have a physical problem and we have a health problem,” he said.

“Naturally, you can’t allow people to store gasoline in tanks within 100ft or 200ft of somebody’s residence. You can’t expect people to be comfortable here anymore.

“They have invaded this community. The government must now take action to move the settlement,” he said.

“It is a grave danger now for the people here. God forbid that lightning strikes one of those gasoline or jet fuel tanks, this whole area would go up in smoke.”

“They (the government) need to deal directly with the industrial companies here, but more particularly, the oil refinery, and Pharmchem because every time you drive by the odour is unbearable.

“It is about time the government takes some action. It is a longtime issue, but it has become worse than it was 10 or 15 years ago.”

Mr Moore was pleased that the matter was raised briefly on the floor of the House.

“It is bringing the country’s attention to (our plight). This is a very serious matter that cannot be taken lightly any longer,” he stressed.

According to Mr Moore, there are approximately 200 homes in the Pinder’s Point community.

The government has issued a statement in response to the recent oil spills in Freeport.

Prime Minster Perry Christie, Glenys Hanna Martin, Minister of Transport and Aviation, and Kenred Dorsett, the Minister of the Environment and Housing, held meetings with BORCO executives to discuss the recent oil spills off Freeport.

According to the press statement, they have expressed the government’s concern about health and safety protocols associated with the operations at BORCO.

However, senior executives from Buckeye Partners Ltd, owners of BORCO, assured the government of its commitment to the highest standards of operation and safety, and it was agreed there would be an continuing dialogue on initiatives being undertaken by Buckeye and the implementation of the necessary steps to further enhance training and a culture of safety in operations and protocols.

It was also agreed that the Government would immediately undertake an audit of its operations at the Freeport facility.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office said the Bahamas Government is committed to ensuring that the highest possible standards are incorporated into all industrial and marine operations in The Bahamas.

Legislation is being reviewed to ensure that regulations are adequate for all industrial and marine operations. In terms of safety and environmental management, The Bahamas is committed to enhancing the safety culture in the industry and in protecting the waters of our country.

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Belize And Its Experience With Oil

By Larry Smith
Bahamas Tribune

KINGSTON, Jamaica – As prospectors are about to drill for oil in Bahamian waters, it’s worth taking a look at the recent experience of petroleum licensing in a fellow CARICOM state – Belize.

Over the past several years, the government of that little Central American nation – sandwiched between Guatemala and Mexico – secretly handed out licenses to a slew of shell companies to drill for oil throughout the country and its offshore waters, including in protected areas.

This sparked the formation of the Belize Coalition to Save our Natural Heritage, which has been fighting a running battle with the government over oil licenses. The coalition includes scores of civil society groups and is supported by Oceana, an international marine conservation society.

A “people’s referendum” was organised just before the last general election (in March 2012), which resulted in an overwhelming no vote against offshore oil drilling by more than 29,000 people. The coalition also took the government to court, with a decision expected next month.

At a regional conference here last week – organised by the Jamaica Environment Trust, the World Resources Institute, the University of the West Indies and others – Belize was cited as a prime example of why freedom of information is vital for good governance and environmental protection.

“A few years ago we learnt from a whistleblower that 95 per cent of our ocean territory had been leased to private companies for oil drilling, including protected areas,” said Audrey Matura-Shepherd, a lawyer who is vice-president of Oceana Belize.

In addition to the marine carve-out, most of Belize’s 8,867 square miles of land were also allocated out in petroleum concessions, despite the fact that ecotourism is big business. The country’s spectacular barrier reef is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it has the world’s only jaguar reserve, covering some 150 square miles of rainforest.

But the lure of oil revenues has set the government on a different course, similar to the one that we are about to embark on, although the licenses in Bahamian waters are a matter of public record.

According to Matura-Shepard, “the government never responded to any of our questions. But eventually we found that one company – Princess Petroleum, owned by a casino operator – had a concession over the famous blue hole on our barrier reef. We are going through judicial review on that right now. It’s like a chess game we are playing with the government.”

One of the key organisers of the Kingston conference was the Jamaica Environment Trust, headed by Diana McCauley. She is a former insurance agent who experienced a “road to Damascus” conversion to environmental advocacy when she visited a public beach in the 1980s that she had frequented as a child.

“Sewage flowed everywhere, foamy and malodourous, carrying condoms and sanitary pad liners and untreated human excrement right into the sea,” she wrote in her blog. “I couldn’t believe it. Then, I thought, the problem was that people didn’t know. After all, I hadn’t known. So I would tell them. Eventually, I gave up my suits and stockings and went around Jamaica on my self-appointed mission of Telling People.”

She formed JET in 1991 as a non-profit membership organisation, providing legal advice to communities affected by environmental issues, and campaigning to protect specific natural resources. But the broken Harbour View sewage treatment plant continued to spew untreated waste into the sea.

After years of unsuccessful letter writing, meetings, attempts at mediation and engagement with the press, in 2006 JET recruited two community residents who were prepared to go to court. They ended up with a consent agreement that required the National Water Commission to fix the plant, with a detailed timeline.

Critical evidence against the government in the law suit was obtained through Jamaica’s Access to Information Act. According to JET’s environmental lawyer, Daniele Andrade, “we found that taxes were collected but never used to fix the plant. Eventually the government agreed they had failed in their statutory duty and we got a consent order forcing them to do what they were supposed to do. Our lawsuit was not worth fighting because the evidence against them was so strong.”

McCauley spent years as a frustrated activist unable to access official information. “Government agencies would just ignore you,” she told me at the conference. “When the access to information law was fully implemented in 2005 we suddenly had a legal right to information, and anything the government denied we could appeal. This is an important tool that has to be used.”

Damian Cox, the director of Jamaica’s Access to Information Unit, told the conference his office was dealing with over 900 information requests a year. “We still have cultural issues within the public sector and we need more proactive disclosure, but public sector heads are now fully aware of the consequences of refusing to disclose.”

The Cayman Islands Information Commissioner’s Office is even more active. There have been thousands of information requests since their law came into effect in 2009, in a population of less than 60,000. Brent Fuller, a reporter for the Caymanian Compass, said most requests did not involve big corruption stories, but focused on quality of life issues such as garbage collection or the number of failing high school students.

According to Cayman Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert, a former diplomat and financial services regulator, “we still have a lack of buy-in from some senior government officials and problems with resources, but basically we wouldn’t change a thing. There have been 100 appeals so far to our office and all have been resolved favourably except for a current dispute with the governor’s office, which is going to judicial review.

“It was a new concept to have a body outside of government that would have order-making powers,” she told the conference. “That was a bit of a shock at first, but now people accept that we are truly independent, especially since the governor is actually suing us.”

The conference reviewed the status and effectiveness of freedom of information laws in the region, as well as institutional structures for their implementation and enforcement. Jamaica is one of seven Caribbean countries (Belize, Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominican Republic, St. Vincent and the Cayman Islands) to have freedom of information laws in force.

Five countries have draft laws pending, and both the Bahamas and Guyana have passed laws that have yet to be implemented. Gaps in implementation were noted in Belize, Antigua, and St Vincent, which have laws that have not fully been utilized by the public.

Although the Ingraham administration passed a freedom of information law early last year to satisfy a campaign pledge, last-minute consultations with the then opposition PLP removed the commencement date for the act to come into force. And since the May 2012 general election nothing more has been heard about the law. No consultative process ever took place for this groundbreaking legislation in the Bahamas. However, it is similar to the Cayman Islands law – which was years in the making.

The Bahamas legislation – like the Caymanian law – gives a general right of access to all persons, stipulates a public interest test for most exemptions, and establishes the post of information commissioner for enforcement. The commissioner will be appointed to a five-year term by the governor-general in an “open process” and be responsible to parliament.

The law also protects whistleblowers who publish information on illicit activities, but will not apply to the judiciary, the uniformed services or financial supervision agencies “in respect of their strategic or operational intelligence gathering.” Records will be exempt from disclosure if the disclosure would harm foreign relations or reveal other confidential information of Cabinet; trade secrets, and in other specified circumstances.

The original bill was modified just before passage early last year. The amendments restricted application rights to Bahamian citizens and permanent residents; and provided for the appointment of an information commissioner, who will also act as data protection commissioner – a post created by another law that was passed in 2003.

The changes also confirmed that the Official Secrets Act will still apply “to the grant of official documents in contravention of (the freedom of information) act.” Presumably, this means that everything in government is officially top secret, unless the information commissioner says otherwise. And the information commissioner can be overruled by the minister, whose decision is not subject to judicial review. These rules were criticised as counter-productive by the opposition PLP at the time.

Exempt records are sealed for 30 years – it was 20 years in the first draft of the Bill. And the law can now be implemented whenever the government decides to gazette it, with different provisions coming into force at different times. The original Bill had a specific timetable, calling for implementation on July 1, 2012.

Perhaps the most interesting amendment was the one that effectively combined two seemingly incompatible posts, presumably as a cost-saving measure. The data protection commissioner’s role is to safeguard the privacy rights of individuals. The office was legislated almost a decade ago to comply with international standards on the processing of personal information by both the private and public sectors, but few Bahamians know it exists.

George Rodgers, a little-known former official in the Bahamas Development Bank, has been data commissioner since 2006, but he appears to have little to keep him occupied. His 2010 report mentions only two relevant complaints, a handful of inquiries, and a number of “awareness visits” to local agencies. And regulations are apparently still being developed.

If the FOI law is ever implemented here, the appointment of a strong information commissioner will be an important step towards more transparency and accountability in government. So there should be some measure of public input in the selection process, which should seek a high-profile, independent-minded individual, who is both interested in the issues and who can withstand political pressure.

But first we have to get the law in force. At the close of the landmark Jamaica conference, participants launched a Caribbean network on freedom of information to help “improve standards for access to information in the region.” But the main impetus for freedom of information here has to come from Bahamian civil society.

Conference participants included journalists, government officials, and environmentalists from 11 Caribbean countries, funded by the Commonwealth Foundation. This writer attended, but the Bahamas government declined to send a representative, although all expenses were covered. The conference had a strong environmental component, but a Bahamas National Trust official was forced to cancel plans to attend at the last minute.

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Unions listed as supporters of campaign to up oil pay out

By Travis Cartwright-Carroll
The Nassau Guardian

Less than a week after issuing a scathing criticism of the Bahamas Petroleum Company (BPC) and its plans to drill for oil in The Bahamas, the National Citizen’s Alliance Coalition (NCAC) has started a public education campaign, listing several unions as supporters of the effort.

The coalition is seeking to change the current agreement that BPC has with the government.

BPC has a sliding-scale agreement with the government under which it would pay out anywhere from 12.5 percent to 25 percent depending on how much oil is extracted each day.

According to a billboard erected on Nassau Street, the National Congress of Trade Unions Bahamas (NCTUB), the Bahamas Christian Council (BCC) and affiliates, the Bahamas Communications and Public Officers Union (BCPOU), the Pension Trust and the Bahamas Public Service Union (BPSU) all support the effort.

BPSU President John Pinder said yesterday he fully supports the effort.

Pinder said the NCAC contacted him last year.

“I don’t think it’s too early because if you drop sleep one morning and you wake up overnight, all of a sudden you start hearing things are happening,” he said.

“I think the education process needs to come along.

“We need to know that the government is supporting its citizens on how the profits ought to be shared coming from oil, if any comes along.”

Pinder said he does not support the current agreement between BPC and the government.

However, when The Nassau Guardian contacted NCTUB President Jennifer Isaacs-Dotson yesterday, she said she wanted the umbrella union’s name removed.

“I don’t know how they (NCAC) could do that,” she said,

“They are very presumptuous to put our name on a billboard.  I’m sorry; we have not agreed to that.

“We have had several meetings with them.  They have come and spoken to the NCTUB about their plans…but the NCTUB has never said that we are on board with what they are doing or that we agree to join what they are doing.

“We have never put that in writing or communicated that to them verbally.”

BCPOU President Bernard Evans declined to comment on the matter.

He appeared surprised when The Guardian told him that the BCPOU was listed as a supporter.

Calls to NCAC spokesperson Wesley Campbell were not returned up to press time.

BCC Economic Committee Chairman Rev. Patrick Paul previously called the agreement “categorically unjust, injurious and unfair to the democracy of our nation”.

He said last week it would not benefit Bahamians directly.

The only condition under which the BCC would support BPC drilling for oil would be if an additional 25 percent of the profits derived from oil drilling are paid into a national sovereign trust fund that would be separate from the government’s royalties.

The fund would also be required to pay a $100,000 dividend to each household in The Bahamas each year.

Prime Minister Perry Christie told reporters last week that the group was premature in its comments because oil has yet to be discovered.

BPC CEO Simon Potter said the company cannot tell the government what to do with any funds it receives from oil drilling, adding that any discussion about a monetary split is academic at this point.

Minister of the Environment and Housing Kenred Dorsett recently announced that the government will allow exploratory drilling to determine if the country has commercially viable oil reserves before it holds a referendum on the issue.

Dorsett explained that the exploration data needed to verify if the country has enough petroleum reserves to justify drilling would not be available until the end of 2014 or early 2015.

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BPC would have `no role’ in how govt spends oil royalties

By Travis Cartwright-Carroll
The Nassau Guardian

Amid scathing criticisms from the Bahamas Christian Council (BCC) over the current agreement in place between the Bahamas Petroleum Company (BPC) and the government, BPC CEO Simon Potter told The Nassau Guardian yesterday that it is not his role to tell the government how to spend its share of any possible revenue from oil.

“It’s not my part to tell them whether to invest in schools, in roads, in hospitals or indeed in a sovereign wealth fund,” said Potter at BPC’s quaint head office near Mount Pleasant Village.

“Those issues are for the government and the people of the Bahamas, not for me as the oil company.”

Potter, who has over 25 years’ experience in oil drilling in Siberia, Indonesia and Australia, said he’s more concerned about preparations to drill an exploratory well.

He noted that the company is taking a big risk and could lose millions of dollars if oil is not found, whereas the government would not.

BPC is waiting for the government to draft regulations before it drills an exploratory well to see if oil is in Bahamian waters.

Minister of the Environment and Housing Kenred Dorsett said the government will allow exploratory drilling to determine if the country has commercially viable oil reserves before it holds a referendum on the issue.

According to BPC, nearly nine billion barrels of oil are likely underneath the ocean floor where it has leases to drill.

The company has a sliding-scale agreement with the government under which it would pay out anywhere from 12.5 percent to 25 percent depending on how much oil is extracted each day.

The BCC, along with the National Citizen’s Alliance Coalition (NCAC), launched a scathing criticism of that agreement calling it “categorically unjust, injurious and unfair to the democracy of our nation”

The only condition under which the BCC would support BPC drilling for oil would be if an additional 25 percent of the profits derived from oil drilling are paid into a national sovereign trust fund that would be separate from the government’s royalties.

The fund would also be required to pay a $100,000 dividend to each household in The Bahamas each year.

When asked about these criticisms, Potter said the company signed its license and agreement with the government in 2007.

He said BPC is not a shady entity.

“We are a transparent company; we’re a well funded company; and we’re a well managed company,” he said.

“The obligation that the license placed upon us, which was over and above what the regulations demanded, is a 25 percent royalty.

“Now royalty comes off the top.

“So for example, if we earn a dollar, immediately 25 cents of that dollar goes to the government.

“We the company then have to pay off the loans that have accrued to develop the facility, the project, in the first place.

“We then have to pay off the operating costs and then it’s only after that the company gets to take its share, its profit.

“So whilst the government will take its 25 percent from day one its only at the end of the accumulative operation that the company would have accumulated its 25 percent.”

Before the church took such a critical position on the oil company, Paul Gucwa, chief operating officer at BPC, spent the last four months visiting various churches in the country.

He said his goal was to ensure that Bahamians were educated ahead of the government’s planned referendum on oil drilling.

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Govt orders BORCO audit following oil spill

By Krystel Rolle
The Nassau Guardian

The government has ordered an on-site audit of the Bahamas Oil Refining Company (BORCO) and all of its operations on Grand Bahama in the wake of the oil company’s third spill for this year, Environment Minister Kenred Dorsett said yesterday.

BORCO’s most recent oil spill occurred on Friday.  It’s still unclear how much oil was leaked into Bahamian waters or what exactly caused the spill.

Dorsett said he along with Prime Minister Perry Christie and Transport and Aviation Minister Glenys Hanna-Martin recently met with senior executives from Buckeye Partners, the owners of the BORCO terminal, to voice their concerns.

“I think that the meeting with the executives of BORCO gave us an opportunity to speak candidly regarding our concerns having regard to the fact that we’ve had so many oil spills in the Grand Bahama area,” Dorsett told reporters as he headed into a Cabinet meeting yesterday.

“It gave us an opportunity to arrange for an on-site audit of BORCO and all of its operations.  And it is the beginning of us finally advancing a proper regulatory regime for those in the petroleum and oil sector, including petroleum retailers such as Rubis.  While we may have certain environmental laws on the books, the reality is we don’t have regulatory protocols regarding operations for these facilities.  We are working with the Attorney General’s Office and seeking external advice on that matter.”

BORCO reported the spill on Friday around 6 p.m. in waters near Pinder’s Point in Freeport.

Oil was said to have covered a 70-foot stretch of rocks at a breakwater in the area of BORCO’s pipelines that connect with a jetty.

In a statement issued on Saturday, Hanna-Martin said the Port Department responded to the “small quantity” of oil immediately.

“The area affected has been boomed off and any additional oil will be corralled in the area of the breakwater and will be retrieved from the water and the affected rocks will be cleaned,” read the statement.

“While this appears to be an incident involving a small amount of oil, the ministry is very concerned about the occurrence of yet another emission of oil in Bahamian waters, particularly having regard to the possible impact on the quality of life of residents in the Pinder’s Point area.”

On February 15, BORCO reported an oil spill from a pipeline containing oily residue in the vicinity of Pinder’s Point, Grand Bahama.  In that incident it was unclear how much fuel spilled.

Prior to that spill, it was reported on January 20 that 210 gallons of diesel fuel spilled in waters off Grand Bahama while a ship was being refueled at BORCO.

Hanna-Martin again pledged that the ministry will completely review legislation regulating the oil industry after the spills.

In a statement on Monday the government pledged to ensure that the highest standards are incorporated into all industrial and marine operations in The Bahamas.

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“Clifton Bay faces massive threat” says environmental expert, as concerned individuals form Coalition

By Eileen Fielder
The Bahamas Weekly

The Bahamas – Leading environmental expert, Kathleen Sullivan-Sealey (Associate Professor at the Department of Biology. University of Miami), says:

“Clifton Bay is under massive threat. Coral reef is being destroyed, oil spills are increasing and the conch population risks dying out.

The root of all this damage is the lack of proper oversight and regulation of fishing, tourism, transport, coastal development and other human activities.

The conservation and protection of Clifton Bay is being sacrificed for short-term interests.”

To address these critical threats, Kathleen and other leading names in the field of environmentalism and conservation throughout The Bahamas and the United States have joined together to form the “Coalition to Protect Clifton Bay” which launches today.

The Coalition to Protect Clifton Bay (CPCB) is a group of highly-respected individuals drawn from a range of backgrounds, united by a shared desire to protect Clifton Bay and other marine environments surrounding New Providence Island and The Bahamas.  Members include:

“Clifton Bay is under massive threat. Coral reef is being destroyed, oil spills are increasing and the conch population risks dying out.

The root of all this damage is the lack of proper oversight and regulation of fishing, tourism, transport, coastal development and other human activities. 

The conservation and protection of Clifton Bay is being sacrificed for short-term interests.”

To address these critical threats, Kathleen and other leading names in the field of environmentalism and conservation throughout The Bahamas and the United States have joined together to form the “Coalition to Protect Clifton Bay” which launches today.

The Coalition to Protect Clifton Bay (CPCB) is a group of highly-respected individuals drawn from a range of backgrounds, united by a shared desire to protect Clifton Bay and other marine environments surrounding New Providence Island and The Bahamas.  Members include:

  •  Keith Wisdom, Chairman of the Clifton Heritage Authority
  •  Kathleen Sullivan-Sealey, Dean of Pure and Applied Sciences, College of The Bahamas
  • Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Founder and Chairman of the Waterkeeper Alliance,
  • Fred Smith,  President, Grand Bahama Human Rights Association
  • Tonya Bastian Galanis, Principal, Eugene Dupuch Law School
  • William Hunter, Acting President
  • Ronald Thompson, Former Ambassador to The Environment
  • Bennet Atkinson, Clifton Heritage Authority
  • Louis Bacon, President, Moore Capital Management
  • Hon. Nicholas F. Brady, Former Treasury Secretary of the United States of America
  • Stuart Cove, President, Dive Bahamas
  • Manuel Cutillas, Chairman, Lyford Cay Foundation
  • Peter Douglas, The Andros Conservancy
  • Romauld Ferreira, Environmental Attorney, Ferreira & Co.
  • David Godfrey, Executive Director, Sea Turtle Conservancy
  • William Hunter, Lyford Cay Foundation
  • Jessica Minnis, Associate Professor, College of The Bahamas
  • Craig Symonette, Chairman, Bahamas Ferries
  • Joseph Darville, Vice President of the Grand Bahama Human Rights Association
  • Troy Albury, President, Save Guana Cay Reef Association

Starting today, the Coalition will provide unwavering support to Bahamian conservation, environmental and educational organizations. These include the Bahamas National Trust, the Andros Conservancy and Trust, the Bahamas Reef Environment Education Foundation; Clifton Heritage National Park; Friends of the Environment; Swim for Ocean Survival; The Island School; The Nature Conservancy, Young Marine Explorers, Save Guana Cay Reef Association, The Grand Bahama Human Rights Association and Abaco Cares.

The Coalition will also be calling on all Bahamians to enlist in its advocacy campaigns, designed to encourage effective land use decisions and habitat restoration efforts. In this vein the Coalition has launched today an informative and interactive website www.protectcliftonbay.org, which explains their goals and allows like-minded supporters to join and help our campaign to save the natural resources of The Bahamas.

Supporters will be able to sign petitions on line, share these on Facebook and Twitter.

We are calling on our youth to help us “Save The Bays, Save Our Seas and Save Our Environment!”

Clearly more oversight is needed of what is going on under Bahamians’ and the Government’s noses. To help bring this about, the Coalition will be campaigning for the passage of an Environmental Protection Act and a Freedom of Information Act, both of which have been promised by the FNM and the PLP.

Coalition member and leading environmental lawyer, Fred Smith said:“The Coalition will be vocal and active in pursuit of our environmental protection objectives.”

Romauld Ferreira added: “The implications of what is going on at Clifton Bay are really serious, for the environment, both in The Bahamas and beyond. We are acting locally, thinking globally.”

This isn’t the first time Clifton Bay has faced grave environmental threats. In the late 1990s it faced major danger from plans to create a 600-home golf course development.  Thanks to the collective efforts of the Bahamian government, Bahamians, environmentalists and conservation organizations, the Clifton Heritage Authority was established enshrining the protection of the land site. The Clifton Park now stands as a testament to the importance Bahamians place on preserving the natural beauty of their land and maintaining a direct connection to their history.

It’s time for action once more to Save The Bay and Save the Marine Environment.

Without immediate action to stop harmful developments and ensure effective oversight and regulation, Clifton Bay’s future is in peril.  As Kathleen Sullivan-Sealey says:

“If individuals are allowed to do whatever they want without repercussions, young people are discouraged. They just feel like money talks. They need to see the law applies to everyone.”

The Coalition vows to change this.

For more information about the Coalition to Protect Clifton Bay, please visit the website.

You’ll see a full list of our Directors and more details about our advocacy campaigns.

You can also follow the Coalition on Twitter and check out its Facebook page.

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Freedom of Information and Environmental Protection in The Bahamas and Caribbean

By: Larry Smith

KINGSTON, Jamaica — As prospectors are about to drill for oil in Bahamian waters, it’s worth taking a look at the recent experience of petroleum licensing in a fellow CARICOM state – Belize.

Over the past several years, the government of that little Central American nation – sandwiched between Guatemala and Mexico – secretly handed out licenses to a slew of shell companies to drill for oil throughout the country and its offshore waters, including in protected areas.

This sparked the formation of the Belize Coalition to Save our Natural Heritage, which has been fighting a running battle with the government over oil licenses. The coalition includes scores of civil society groups and is supported by Oceana, an international marine conservation society.

A “people’s referendum” was organised just before the last general election (in March 2012), which resulted in an overwhelming no vote against offshore oil drilling by more than 29,000 people. The coalition also took the government to court, with a decision expected next month.

At a regional conference here last week – organised by the Jamaica Environment Trust, the World Resources Institute, the University of the West Indies and others – Belize was cited as a prime example of why freedom of information is vital for good governance and environmental protection.

“A few years ago we learnt from a whistleblower that 95 per cent of our ocean territory had been leased to private companies for oil drilling, including protected areas,” said Audrey Matura-Shepherd, a lawyer who is vice president of Oceana Belize.

In addition to the marine carve-out, most of Belize’s 8,867 square miles of land were also allocated out in petroleum concessions, despite the fact that ecotourism is big business. The country’s spectacular barrier reef is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it has the world’s only jaguar reserve, covering some 150 square miles of rainforest.

But the lure of oil revenues has set the government on a different course, similar to the one that we are about to embark on, although the licenses in Bahamian waters are so far a matter of public record.

According to Matura-Shepard, “the government never responded to any of our questions. But eventually we found that one company – Princess Petroleum, owned by a casino operator – had a concession over the famous blue hole on our barrier reef. We are going through judicial review on that right now. It’s like a chess game we are playing with the government.”

One of the key organisers of the Kingston conference was the Jamaica Environment Trust, headed by Diana McCaulay. She is a former insurance agent who experienced a “road to Damascus” conversion to environmental advocacy when she visited a public beach in the 1980s that she had frequented as a child.

“Sewage flowed everywhere, foamy and malodourous, carrying condoms and sanitary pad liners and untreated human excrement right into the sea,” she wrote in her blog. “I couldn’t believe it. Then, I thought, the problem was that people didn’t know. After all, I hadn’t known. So I would tell them. Eventually, I gave up my suits and stockings and went around Jamaica on my self-appointed mission of Telling People.”

She formed JET in 1991 as a non-profit membership organisation, providing legal advice to communities affected by environmental issues, and campaigning to protect specific natural resources. But the broken Harbour View sewage treatment plant continued to spew untreated waste into the sea.

After years of unsuccessful letter writing, meetings, attempts at mediation and engagement with the press, in 2006 JET recruited two community residents who were prepared to go to court. They ended up with a consent agreement that required the National Water Commission to fix the plant, with a detailed timeline.

Critical evidence against the government in the law suit was obtained through Jamaica’s Access to Information Act. According to JET’s environmental lawyer, Daniele Andrade, “we found that taxes were collected but never used to fix the plant. Eventually the government agreed they had failed in their statutory duty and we got a consent order forcing them to do what they were supposed to do. Our lawsuit was not worth fighting because the evidence against them was so strong.”

McCaulay spent years as a frustrated activist unable to access official information. “Government agencies would just ignore you,” she told me at the conference. “When the access to information law was fully implemented in 2005 we suddenly had a legal right to information, and anything the government denied we could appeal. This is an important tool that has to be used.”

Damian Cox, the director of Jamaica’s Access to Information Unit told the conference his office was dealing with over 900 information requests a year. “We still have cultural issues within the public sector and we need more proactive disclosure, but public sector heads are now fully aware of the consequences of refusing to disclose.”

The Cayman Islands Information Commissioner’s Office is even more active. There have been thousands of information requests since their law came into effect in 2009, in a population of less than 60,000. Brent Fuller, a reporter for the Caymanian Compass, said most requests do not involve big corruption stories, but focused on quality of life issues such as garbage collection or the number of failing high school students.

According to Cayman Information Commissioner Jennifer Dilbert, a former diplomat and financial services regulator, “we still have a lack of buy-in from some senior government officials and problems with resources, but basically we wouldn’t change a thing. There have been 100 appeals so far to our office and all have been resolved favourably except for a current dispute with the governor’s office, which is going to judicial review.

“It was a new concept to have a body outside of government that would have order-making powers,” she told the conference. “That was a bit of a shock at first, but now people accept that we are truly independent, especially since the governor is actually suing us.”

The conference reviewed the status and effectiveness of freedom of information laws in the region, as well as institutional structures for their implementation and enforcement. Jamaica is one of seven Caribbean countries (Belize, Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominican Republic, St. Vincent and the Cayman Islands) to have freedom of information laws in force.

Five countries have draft laws pending, and both the Bahamas and Guyana have passed laws that have yet to be implemented. Gaps in implementation were noted in Belize, Antigua, and St Vincent, which have laws that have not fully been utilized by the public.

Although the Ingraham administration passed a freedom of information law early last year to satisfy a campaign pledge, last-minute consultations with the then opposition PLP removed the commencement date for the act to come into force. And since the May 2012 general election nothing more has been heard about the law. No consultative process ever took place for this groundbreaking legislation in the Bahamas. However, it is similar to the Cayman Islands law – which was years in the making.

The Bahamas legislation – like the Caymanian law – gives a general right of access to all persons, stipulates a public interest test for most exemptions, and establishes the post of information commissioner for enforcement. The commissioner will be appointed to a five-year term by the governor-general in an “open process” and be responsible to parliament.

The law also protects whistleblowers who publish information on illicit activities, but will not apply to the judiciary, the uniformed services or financial supervision agencies “in respect of their strategic or operational intelligence gathering.” Records will be exempt from disclosure if the disclosure would harm foreign relations or reveal other confidential information of Cabinet; trade secrets, and in other specified circumstances.

The original bill was modified just before passage early last year. The amendments restricted application rights to Bahamian citizens and permanent residents; and provided for the appointment of an information commissioner, who will also act as data protection commissioner – a post created by another law that was passed in 2003.

The changes also confirmed that the Official Secrets Act will still apply “to the grant of official documents in contravention of (the freedom of information) act.” Presumably, this means that everything in government is officially top secret, unless the information commissioner says otherwise. And the information commissioner can be overruled by the minister, whose decision is not subject to judicial review. These rules were criticised as counter-productive by the opposition PLP at the time.

Exempt records are sealed for 30 years – it was 20 years in the first draft of the Bill. And the law can now be implemented whenever the government decides to gazette it, with different provisions coming into force at different times. The original Bill had a specific timetable, calling for implementation on July 1, 2012.

Perhaps the most interesting amendment was the one that effectively combined two seemingly incompatible posts, presumably as a cost-saving measure. The data protection commissioner’s role is to safeguard the privacy rights of individuals. The office was legislated almost a decade ago to comply with international standards on the processing of personal information by both the private and public sectors, but few Bahamians know it exists.

George Rodgers, a little-known former official in the Bahamas Development Bank, has been data commissioner since 2006, but he appears to have little to keep him occupied. His 2010 report mentions only two relevant complaints, a handful of inquiries, and a number of “awareness visits” to local agencies. And regulations are apparently still being developed.

If the FOI law is ever implemented here, the appointment of a strong information commissioner will be an important step towards more transparency and accountability in government. So there should be some measure of public input in the selection process, which should seek a high-profile, independent-minded individual, who is both interested in the issues and who can withstand political pressure.

But first we have to get the law in force. At the close of the landmark Jamaica conference, participants launched  a Caribbean network on freedom of information to help “improve standards for access to information in the region”. But the main impetus for freedom of information here has to come from Bahamian civil society.

Conference participants included journalists, government officials, and environmentalists from 11 Caribbean countries, funded by the Commonwealth Foundation. This writer attended, but the Bahamas government declined to send a representative, although all expenses were covered. The conference had a strong environmental component, but a Bahamas National Trust official was forced  to cancel plans to attend at the last minute.

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