by Larry Smith
In the summer of 2009 I went to Abaco to seek out a top-secret government construction site deep in the pine forest.
No - it wasn't the Bahamian equivalent of Area 51. It was a BEC power plant. I use the word "secret" because there was no real public communication of what was planned at the site, although the government had decided on its course of action four years earlier - in 2005.
Following my visit, I reviewed the environmental impact assessment for the project at the BEST Commission office on West Bay Street, and then wrote an article entitled The Great Wilson City Power Plant Mystery. That article laid out most of the available facts surrounding this $105 million public sector project for the first time.
My 2009 article underscored the main issue which the Court of Appeal recently ruled on - transparency in government, or rather the lack of it. In short, how can a state agency spend tens of millions of public funds without any accountability whatsoever? In fact, BEC wouldn't even answer even the most basic questions until it was forced to.
That lack of transparency carries over to the current operation of the plant, pollution of the environment, waste of financial resources, inappropriate planning, and other public interest issues. And based on BECs track record, as outlined in the 2009 article, we know what lack of transparency means. According to the record, the corporation is the nation's worst polluter.
Both the Clifton and Blue Hills power plants on New Providence were considered "grossly contaminated" back then. We don't know what the more recent record is because of the very lack of transparency and accountability we are referring to - something that has persisted under both PLP and FNM governments.
A much-needed upgrade of Abaco's power infrastructure was first considered in the late 1990s, but was delayed due to competing priorities. In 2005 the first Christie administration decided on a conventional heavy fuel oil power station located at Snake Cay, a few miles south of Marsh Harbour. A small freight terminal had been built there by Owens-Illinois in the 1950s.
The last Ingraham administration approved arrangements left on the table by the PLP for the Canadian company, MANN Diesel, to supply a 48-megawatt generating plant. But it was decided to move the project to a more distant green fields site near Wilson City on the Bight of Old Robinson. At the time there was talk of a resort development in the Snake Cay area.
However, what stands out from each government's planning and decision-making, is that no consideration was given to alternative energy sources for Abaco going forward. It wasn't until Fred Gottlieb became chairman in 2007 that BEC formed an in-house committee to investigate renewable energy options. And it has yet to move even an inch in this direction, despite several promising starts.
From all accounts, it is difficult to disagree with Bradley Roberts (the minister in charge of BEC when the original 2005 decision was made) that the Abaco plant is "an exercise in bad governance". Of course, in his recent remarks to the Tribune he attributed all the blame to the FNM, when in fact it was he who made the down payment to MANN Diesel in the first place.
Moving the plant from Snake Cay to Wilson City is largely irrelevant, since both sites are environmentally sensitive, and there was no public consultation on either one. The chief environmental objections to the Abaco plant were its planned reliance on highly polluting (but cheaper) heavy fuel oil, and the delivery of that fuel via small tankers through shallow coastal waters - a plan that was revoked by the Ingraham administration in response to public pressure.
These two locations figure in the controversy because they are almost the only places on Abaco suitable for a power plant and within reasonable distance of a coast that can be approached by a fuel ship. The original plan - at both Snake Cay and Wilson City - was to supply the fuel by coastal tanker, and the risk of a shipping disaster in such sensitive waters is not as unlikely as you may think. The fact that we may not have heard about oil spills locally doesn't mean they haven't happened. It simply points to the lack of transparency and accountability on the part of BEC or the government.
According to Bradley Roberts, "It’s costing BEC more money to operate (the Abaco) plant because they have to transfer fuel over land to Wilson City, whereas the initial location of Snake Cay would have been closer to water and they would have been transferring the fuel by pipeline to the power station."
As mentioned earlier, the initial plans for Wilson City also called for delivery of fuel by pipeline from a nearby ocean terminal, so Roberts' point is pointless. This plan was cancelled by the Ingraham administration in the face of public pressure. In fact, the cost of trucking fuel as opposed to building a fuel terminal in the sensitive Bight of Old Robinson, is probably the most defensible position on costs and environmental risks.
Roberts also claimed that when the plant was finally built "they discovered they hadn’t put in the transmission lines, and further work was needed. It’s one bloody nightmare." But just as with Wilson City, new transmission lines would have been needed if the plant had been sited at Snake Cay, yet they were not included in the original project designs.
Former BEC chairman Michael Moss told me recently that construction of the Abaco plant had to be funded out of cash flow "because BEC's finances had plummeted to such an awful state due to the ill-conceived rate reduction of 2003 that it could not secure project financing. Contracts for road paving and the transmission lines were therefore only awarded when the means to pay arose."
Moss also panned the purchase of four 12 megawatt generators for the plant by Roberts as way over the top. "These units are too large for the system. The island's total load is less than 12 MW for about a quarter of the year, with a summer peak close to 25 MW," he said. "By contrast, Emera purchased 8 MW units for Grand Bahama, with its significantly greater loads."
Much of the public concern over the Wilson City plant was stirred up by a dramatic You Tube video produced by a young Abaconian named Matt McCoy in 2009. The video produced by McCoy's company - Loggerhead Productions - noted that "emissions produced by (heavy fuel oil) power plants are so poisonous that most countries can't burn it and still meet their own clean air laws. The Bahamas has yet to pass any clean air laws. The emissions cause cancer, heart and lung disease and acid rain, which is bad for the ocean and the marine life."
We should add here that BEC has been burning heavy fuel oil at its Clifton Pier power plant for many years without complaint, and heavy fuel oil plants operate around the world - but they typically require costly pollution and safety controls and procedures. And the broader point to make here is that serious consideration should be given - and seen to be given - to the future of energy and the protection of the environment when investing over $100 million of taxpayer money in an asset that will be in use for at least a quarter century.
"I got involved because the whole situation made me and many others so mad," McCoy told me over the weekend. "We have so many acts of bad and corrupt governance in this country that it's easy to just become numb to it all. But the power plant was so terrible that it was impossible to ignore. There were so many things that were done wrong: the fuel type, the location, the secrecy, the lies, the lack of any kind of plan or research. Plus there was no input from locals.
"And here we are years later and the power still went off everyday in Abaco this summer. There are many stories of the usual poor management and maintenance of those four expensive engines down at Wilson City. One has been run without out oil, and there were several instances where they shut down for unknown reasons. Of course, these stories cannot be verified because BEC is not open about its operations and denies anything potentially damaging."
This brings us back to the latest development in this ongoing saga. A few days ago, the Court of Appeal in Nassau ruled on a judicial review action that had been filed by Freeport lawyer Fred Smith in 2010 on behalf of a local pressure group called Responsible Development Abaco. In an unprecedented judgement, the judges agreed that meaningful and adequate public consultation had not taken place on the project. In fact, they said the government and BEC never had any intention to consult the public.
In overturning an earlier ruling by Supreme Court Justice Hartman Longly, the appeal judges pointed out that a town meeting organised by the government and BEC in September 2009 did not constitute adequate consultation since it came too late to influence any decision-making.
I attended that meeting in Marsh Harbour and wrote the following at the time: "Faced with overwhelming disapproval from a standing room-only crowd of Abaconians upset over the bypassing of local interests, Bahamas Electrcity Corporation chiefs admitted to a failure of process and promised to learn from their mistakes.
"The town meeting was hastily called to address a groundswell of concern about the environmental and other implications of the plant, whose foundations have already been laid on a 25-acre site near Wilson City, about 14 miles south of Marsh Harbour. But in many respects the effort came years too late."
Fred Gottlieb (the Abaconian chairman of BEC who took a lot of heat at the meeting) gave the government's rationale for the project: "The existing plant is 30 years old, It has an installed capacity of 27 mw and peak demand is 24 mw, so the loss of a single engine causes serious load shedding. The present site is too close to residential areas and there is no room for expansion, but Abaco's energy demand is growing by 5 per cent per annum. I met the letter of intent for the new plant signed by my predecessor and we went ahead with it."
After the meeting I talked to Fred Smith, the lawyer who launched the judicial review action. "This is the biggest capital expediture in Abaco's history and there has been no meaningful public consultation," he told me. "I will be writing to the relevant central and local government agencies for evidence that all approvals and permits have been properly obtained. I don't expect any answers and they will probably continue to do what they are doing, but the project will then be subject to judicial review."
Of course, this was all considered a royal pain by BEC chiefs and politicos. They brushed aside a framework for public access and consultation going forward that would have settled the case out of court. David Pitcairn, one of the Abaco residents who supported the RDA action, told me that the ruling confirmed the right of public access to BEC's permits and environmental data.
"It means they must notify us of any plans to change the plant or add features like a fuel dock, and they must provide all pertinent data that they use to make a decision, as well as meetings with the public prior to making a final decision," Pitcairn said. "RDA will submit in writing what we require and request pertinent information so we can engage in full and proper consultation. The response to that submission will dictate future action."
Fred Smith told me that the ruling marked "the first time that an industrial plant, and all central and local government authorities, are being required to be transparent and accountable in all future growth and all current and future operations. The genesis and dawn of a new day for the environment and affected persons."
In their ruling, the appeal judges made it clear that the judicially reviewable decision in the case was not the retroactive grants of construction permits in 2010, nor the execution of a contract to build the plant in 2007, but the initial decision to proceed that was taken in 2005 - when Bradley Roberts was in charge.
"It was that decision that the subsequent construction contract and subsequent approvals and permissions sought to implement," the ruling said. "The decision was announced three years after the decision was made, (and) the construction of the plant was revealed after it had already commenced, and the approvals were granted retrospectively."
The appeal court said the lower court judgment did not take account of "the importance to Abaco residents of having a power plant in their neighbourhood and the serious environmental, health and safety concerns about its operation…Fairness dictated a duty to consult and to hear the concerns of those likely to be affected before the decision…was made."
So the court directed the government and BEC to "conduct full and proper public consolation on the operation of the plant going forward."
And we should not forget that the 2010 Planning and Subdivision Act, which former Environment Minister Earl Deveaux piloted through parliament, also now requires public consultation and environmental impact assessments for such projects going forward. The objects of this law provide for planning processes that are "fair by making them open, accessible, timely and efficient".
So now we have comprehensive legislation AND an appeal court judgement requiring public consultation and environmental impact assessments on development projects by all parties - Bahamian and foreign, public and private. Meanwhile, the RDA has already communicated with BEC's lawyers to set up a communications framework for the Abaco plant.
The only thing left to consider now is compliance.