Archive | April, 2015

Smith demands FOIA ‘right now’

Fred Smith, QC, newly appointed chairman of Save the Bays.

Fred Smith, QC, demands FOIA NOW.

STB chairman says Urban Renewal controversy, Rubis fuel spill fallout demonstrate the urgent need for transparency and accountability in government

The “shocking revelations” of the past several weeks have prompted prominent attorney, Fred Smith, QC, to call for the immediate passage of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Smith, chairman of the fast growing social and environmental advocacy movement, Save The Bays (STB), said that in the absence of legal mechanisms guaranteeing transparency and accountability, the PLP government may end up running the country “into the ground” before the end of their current term in office.

“We cannot afford another month, much less another year of this,” he said. “We need an FOIA right now. It is by far the single most important legislative item on Parliament’s agenda today.

“The PLP made it a top campaign promise, but since gaining office they have kicked the can repeatedly down the road. With the shocking revelations of the last few weeks, we now begin to appreciate why.”

Smith said government is clearly concerned that an FOIA will lead to the public exposure of further cases of gross negligence and dereliction of duty, pointing to the leaked Auditor General’s probe into Urban Renewal’s small home repair (SHR) project, as well as the newly-released report into the catastrophic Rubis fuel spill.

Under the SHR, government disbursed more than $3 million in public funds for repairs to the homes of low-income families and the disabled. According to the Auditor General, however, several of the contractors – some of whom had little to no experience and were selected according to questionable means – failed to complete the work. The probe found that where the work was completed, the homes in question were not necessarily occupied by disadvantaged families.

Meanwhile, the Rubis fuel spill came to the attention of government in January 2013, yet families living near the site were not warned of the severe health risks they faced from air pollution and groundwater contamination. A report confirming the residents were exposed to substances known to cause a range of serious illnesses, including cancer, has been in the hands of government for more than a year, but was only released last week.

“While this government has already proven, time and again, that it is incapable of either managing the public’s money, or guaranteeing our safety, these latest two examples really take the cake. What it boils down to is an administration that is willing to abandon ordinary Bahamians, in order to protect their own interests and do favors for their friends and supporters.

“Who were these contractors who failed to repair the homes of the poor and disabled under the SHR? Whose homes did they repair instead?

“And, how can four government ministers, all tasked in different ways with protecting the public, be aware that the lives of an entire community have been placed at risk by a dangerous toxic leak, and yet say nothing for more than a year? Without an FOIA, the nightmare that the residents of Marathon are currently living will be repeated again and again across this country.”

Smith reminded the public that these matters follow a host of other controversies which remain shrouded in mystery, including the $600 million letter of intent signed by former Works Parliamentary Secretary, Renward Wells, without Cabinet approval; the BAMSI debacle, in which a $5 million public building which burned down turned out to be uninsured; as well as multiple secret deals with foreign developers that often lead to significant environmental degradation and social dislocation.

“Government agents and operatives cannot continue to run riot over this society in the name of their own political self-interest, he said. “They are coming dangerously close to destroying The Bahamas. The public must join Save The Bays in demanding Freedom of Information, right now. The future of this country really does depend on it.”

Minister Calls On Students to Hold Government Accountable for the Environment

Minister of Environment and Housing Kenred Dorsett urged high school students to point out weaknesses of the Government and to assist with developing laws to support the environment. Dorsett was speaking at the third Earth Day Challenge held at the Paul Farquharson Center at the Police Headquarters. The event, the brainchild of ecologist & attorney Romi Ferreira, was joined by the American Embassy for the first time this year which assisted with sponsorship. Pictured L-R: Anthony Ferguson, Acting Deputy Commissioner of Police; Romauld Ferreira event founder and Managing Partner of Ferreira & Company; Hon. Kenred Dorsett, Minister of the Environment and Housing; Neda Brown, Acting Deputy Chief of Mission for the American Embassy; Seretha Clarke, Assistant Director of Education (Examination & Assessment) (Photo: Bahamas Visual Services for DP&A)

Minister of Environment and Housing Kenred Dorsett urged high school students to point out weaknesses of the Government and to assist with developing laws to support the environment. Dorsett was speaking at the third Earth Day Challenge held at the Paul Farquharson Center at the Police Headquarters. The event, the brainchild of ecologist & attorney Romi Ferreira, was joined by the American Embassy for the first time this year which assisted with sponsorship. Pictured L-R: Anthony Ferguson, Acting Deputy Commissioner of Police; Romauld Ferreira event founder and Managing Partner of Ferreira & Company; Hon. Kenred Dorsett, Minister of the Environment and Housing; Neda Brown, Acting Deputy Chief of Mission for the American Embassy; Seretha Clarke, Assistant Director of Education (Examination & Assessment) (Photo: Bahamas Visual Services for DP&A)

In the midst of public uproar surrounding the government’s negligence to inform the public of the results of a 2012 underground leak at a local gas station, the Minister of Environment and Housing urged high school students to help the Government to correct its flaws.

Minister Kenred Dorsett made the call at the opening ceremonies for the third Earth Day Challenge sponsored by Ferreira & Company held earlier this week, which attracted more than 50 students from around the country. The event encouraged students to display environmental issues and provide solutions for them, something Dorsett said was quite a heartening experience for him.

“I was encouraged about the future of earth sciences in our country when I learnt that not only were you required to complete science projects, but you have to defend them and also find out if there were any laws that encouraged the activities of your project,” said Dorsett. “So now you can point out weaknesses to the Government and help us to make laws to support the environmental projects you studied.

Just last week, Dorsett and his government agency came under fire after it was revealed that an independent study completed by Black and Veach International (BVI) in 2014 indicated that an oil leak at the Rubis Service Station on Robinson Road exposed residents of the area and employees of surrounding businesses to harmful chemicals.

The report went on to say that while remediation efforts were appropriate for groundwater contamination, Rubis could have also acted on its off-site impacts.  One of those harmful chemicals included Benzene, known to be a cancer-causing component. The initial complaint was made in 2012 and the results of the year-old report, were not released until last week after residents demanded answers.

Since last week’s revelation, Bahamians have strengthened their cry for a Freedom of Information Act to be passed, something environmental consultant and attorney Romauld Ferreira says he has been pushing for more than two years.

“The time to act is now,” said Ferreira, who is also a director of the environmental group Save The Bays.  “Had there been a Freedom of Information Act in place, the people would not have been left in the dark for nearly two years. Now we have persons who have been exposed to deadly toxins, something that could have been avoided had there been a law for accountability and transparency in the first place.”

Shortly after making the call to the students, Dorsett admitted that the process of the release of the report should have been more transparent, but maintained that there was no conspiracy to conceal information from the Bahamian people.  Dorsett has called the government’s handling of the Rubis matter “a teachable moment.”