Supreme Court Justice Courtney Abel has ruled that the Department of Environment’s National Environmental Appraisal Committee (NEAC) took important shortcuts to have fast tracked Norwegian Cruise Line’s (NCL) Harvest Caye Berthing facility in the south.
The Committee, chaired by Chief Environmental Officer Martin Allegria, did not perform its full legal obligation to the public when it did not allow the general public enough time to digest NCL’s updated environmental impact assessment (EIA) on how it will responsibly develop Harvest Caye with minimal - if any - negative impacts to the environment which surrounds it.
Readers will remember that 2 years ago in January 2014, the NCL representatives took quite a tongue lashing at the public meeting in Independence Village. That’s where members of the public got an opportunity to voice their concerns on the Environmental Impact Assessment document that the multinational’s environmental technicians prepared. For those readers who do not know what it is, an EIA is a study done by any developer in which extensive scientific measurements and observations are collected to prove to the Department of the Environment (DOE) that a project is feasible and should have minimal negative effects on the environment. If the project does have some negative impacts, the developer’s technicians are required to prove that there are mechanisms which can and will be employed to mitigate them. In that public meeting, it was exposed by the residents who perused the EIA document from NCL, that it was inadequate and incomplete, and so it ought not to have been approved in the current state that it was in.
In the case before Justice Courtney Abel, the Belize Tourism Industry Association (BTIA) sued the DOE and the NEAC, which are both government agencies which give the approval to a developer that their project is environmentally feasible. They contended that these two agencies skirted their obligations to public disclosure when they failed to make the public fully aware of additional information which was submitted, and more than that, they supposedly shortened the time span which did not allow the public enough time to review and make comments or suggestions on the private developer’s new environmental assessments.
For background, after Norwegian’s technicians gathered all the comments and criticisms from the public meeting, they went back to the drawing board and produced 2 addenda to their EIA document, which are basically, additional information to address the concerns raised, and to handle all the environmental issues that the first draft missed. The BTIA claimed before Justice Abel that they requested a second public meeting to discuss this new information, but the Department of Environment did not approve it saying that they did not find it necessary to do so. Their attorney submitted that the Government agencies then sought to comply with the publication requirements of the EIA law, but they short-circuited the process by only providing a few days notice to the public and then closed off the process to provide the environmental green-light. The claimants say that all this hurry was to allow NCL the shortest delay possible in trying to start with the construction phase of their project. They contended that in the Government’s zeal to try to attract this international private investor, they fast-tracked the project’s process, which could have been detrimental to the environment where Harvest Caye is located in.
After reading out his entire judgment, which took almost an hour and a half, the judge found that “there was breach of the EIA regulations” and that the “content published was deficient”. He described the DOE and NEAC’s handling of this public disclosure as “short-circuiting”, and that “shortcuts were taken” to the judge’s “utter disapproval”. Since the BTIA was not trying to stop the construction of NCL’s cruise port at Harvest Caye (which is over 70% complete at this time), the judge also found that while errors were done, it did not warrant any court order to declare the DOE’s approval of the project as null and void. So, in the grand scheme of things NCL can continue with it’s construction, but the court has made it clear that the National Environmental Appraisal Committee is expected to follow all the guidelines of the law to for the achievement of the spirit of the law. That is, that the public must be allowed to fully review, critique, and assess any private developer’s plan for a project in Belize, especially, in environmentally fragile areas of the country. As a consequence, the judge has ordered that the defendants, which includes the Government and the developer, Norwegian Cruise Line, must pay court costs to the plaintiffs of $50,000. No deadline has been set as yet.