by Larry Smith
Last week I received an unexpected call from Philip Weech, head of the Bahamas Environment Science & Technology Commission. He notified me (and presumably others) that the long-sought environmental impact assessment for the planned Bimini Bay cruise ferry terminal had finally been published on the commission’s website.
That announcement came long after the developers had begun mobilising for the project, and well after actual construction had begun - as my recent trip to Bimini confirmed. According to Weech, the Official Secrets Act had prevented him from releasing the document earlier, but he was not aiuthorised to make any comment.
The lack of transparancy and utter disregard for due process is truly astounding - even for the Bahamas. And the government must be held to account in this matter, or our democracy will be further eroded. All decisions were apparently made long ago in secret, without input from environmental agencies like the Bahamas National Trust, or the public.
This is notwithstanding the fact that the whole EIA process is intended to be consultative in the first place. And notwithstanding the fact that the Planning & Subdivision Act mandates a land use plan for every island governing "the management of water and other natural resources, Crown lands, natural and cultural heritage, environmental protection, agriculture, industry, tourism, commerce, urban development and transportation."
The Bimini cruise ferry terminal EIA was produced by a Nassau-based firm called Blue Engineering (headed by Michelle Lakin), with input from two Miami firms, Coastal Systems International and Ocean Consulting Inc.
The project will dredge 220,000 cubic yards of material from the seabed off North Bimini's western shore to create an entrance channel and a 4.5 acre artificial island connected to the resort by a 1,000-foot pier. This dredge and fill operation will impact some 25 acres of seabed, according to the EIA.
The pier will include a six-foot-wide walkway and two 10-foot-wide vehicle lanes. It will be built on steel piles with a precast concrete deck about 12 feet above sea level, which will extend over the beach to an abutment some 150 feet inland. From here a road will lead directly into the Bimini Bay Resort.
Water depths in the area where the project is located range from 15 to 31 feet, and the entire area will be deepened as necessary to a depth of 31 feet, with the spoil used to create the island. Construction will be undertaken by international firms employing about 50 mostly foreign workers, and is expected to take about six months, the EIA says.
According to Nassau-based environmental lawyer Romi Ferreira (who has reviewed the EIA), Bimini's successful dive- and fishing-based tourism model is effectively being put at risk in order to rescue the Bimini Bay development.
"The developer's own EIA shows that the sustainability of the cruise ferry project is questionable," Ferreira said. "If at the end of the day it collapses, all this would have been for nothing. You'd have destroyed a viable tourist industry because the development could impact Bimini to such an extent that people currently coming to the island may no longer want to come."
Development at Bimini Bay started in 1997 and the first phase opened 10 years later. Today, the 750-acre resort features hundreds of cookie-cutter homes and condos, a mega-yacht marina, a bulkheaded artificial island dredged from the north sound, restaurants, pools, bars, shops, tennis courts, and a beach club. But according to the EIA, the resort is “under-utilised”.
Bimini Bay's prospects took a nosedive following the global financial crisis, with resort operators coming and going. But last year the developer - Cuban-American Gerardo Capo - was able to get the Malaysian multinational, Genting Group, to invest in a $24 million casino, an adjacent $150 million 350-room hotel now under construction, the $60 million cruise ferry, and the $10 million docking pier and terminal.
This business model is projected to increase Bimini’s tourist arrivals from about 50,000 to over 500,000 a year, the EIA says, noting that the increased tourism could also damage the attributes that attract current visitors.
"The overall impacts of tourism are anticipated to be high, both positive and negative, and long-term in duration," the report says, adding that “many of the fears surrounding (the development) are closely associated with uncontrolled, unsustainable and mass tourism growth."
The EIA argues that the number of projected visitors is greater than what is appropriate for the ecological and socioeconomic carrying capacity of Bimini, outside of the resort itself. The negative impacts on the environment "will be extremely high”, it says, leading to a loss of natural resources.
The project could also put the existing Balearia ferry service from Florida to Bimini out of business. Balearia is a Spanish shipping company which operates a 463-passenger cruise ferry from Port Everglades to the government dock in Bimini harbour. Genting's proposed ferry service will offer a shorter journey with more on-board features - including a full casino.
"The project may result in a substantial influx of people to the island and a demand on land use as a result of increased tourism and labour. This may also increase the cost of living on the island,” the EIA says.
Among Biminites surveyed for the EIA, many were "very concerned" about the environment and overfishing, with most believing that the dramatic increase in tourism will severely deplete these resources. Many also feared that the ferry service would ultimately fail, at the price of Bimini’s natural environment. Economic growth was not a driving factor in public opinion, due to the fact that most Biminites are already employed.
The impacts associated with possible failure of environmental control systems during construction were considered high by the EIA. "The nature and amount of the material handling for the project is large. The potential impact of turbidity affecting the nearby reef is a major concern...In some cases measures can be taken to avoid or reduce the severity of the impact. In other cases the impacts cannot be avoided or successfully mitigated, and these represent irreversible impacts."
The EIA identifies a number of healthy coral reefs near the project area that have significant value as marine habitats. "Diving and snorkeling in Bimini is very popular and a major reason for many tourists to visit Bimini. There are over 21 dive sites that are regularly visited by the five or more dive operators. Of the 21 dive sites listed, 12 are within 1.5 miles of the project area. This area is therefore of high importance to the diving industry."
The EIA also notes that the government has identified uninhabited East Bimini as one of five priority marine reserve sites, but there has apparently been no official implementation of this marine protected area since the initial announcement was made several years ago.
Bimini Bay has built a desalination plant with a capacity of 375,000 gallons a day and a holding capacity of 800,000 gallons a day. Intake for the desalination plant is via a 200-foot well. At present, Bimini experiences a shortage of water during holidays when the island experiences a high level of tourists.
A sewerage treatment plant at the resort can accommodate 150,000 gallons a day, upgradeable to 800,000 gallons a day. Outside of the resort, sanitary waste is collected in septic tanks which are typically installed with drain fields or disposal wells.
Household and commercial garbage is collected and barged to a 10-acre government landfill on South Bimini. This site was not designed to accommodate the amount of waste currently being generated by the Bimini Bay development.
Bimini’s existing utilities are considered inadequate to meet the needs of the project. As a result, BEC will be required to expand generating capacity for the island, while the developer will have to improve potable water supply, sewerage treatment and solid waste disposal facilities.
The government and the developer are said to be collaborating on a master plan for the island which will include road improvements, construction of social housing, and other community enhancements. An environmental manager will be hired by the developer to oversee all construction activities.
Bimini has an available work force of only about 700, and there are already over 500 employees at Bimini Bay, with only 17 foreigners amongst them according to the government. Another 300 workers are expected to be hired by December for the new hotel, and since all those willing and able to work on Bimini are already employed, these jobs will be filled by incomers, who presumably will live in the resort's dormitories.
Clearly, the threat to Bimini’s future from this development is substantial. The project is completely insensitive to both the natural environment and the character of the island, and there is a high risk that it will prove unsustainable - after it has had an irreversible impact on Bimini’s natural resources. As one of Tough Call’s correspondents recently put it:
"The business plan seems to be a continuation of what has already failed in places like Emerald Bay on Exuma and the Ginn project on Grand Bahama - take a little island, throw out the magic word 'jobs' and build the biggest thing you can get on the land while no-one is paying attentjon to the environment or what the people of the island actually want.”