Editorial | Agree on underground utility lines
The issue of storms and hurricanes figured only marginally in Appeal Justice Jennifer Straw’s judgment last week that the Jamaica Public Service (JPS), the light and power company, cannot arbitrarily end the supply of electricity to the upper St Andrew community of Hope Pastures via underground cables.
Hopefully, however, the re-emergence of the case, in the midst of what will probably be the most active Atlantic hurricane season ever, will stir discussion on our previous proposal of a long-term initiative for the subsurface installation of power and other utility lines. It is a matter we commend to Daryl Vaz, the energy minister, and Pearnel Charles Jr, who has responsibility for housing and the environment, for their urgent consideration .
Jamaica, so far, has been fortunate this hurricane season. While for the past two months we have experienced consistently heavy rainfall, resulting in flooding and landslides, from nearby weather systems, the island has taken no direct hit or sideswipes from those that have developed into either storms or hurricanes, of which there have been many.
Indeed, up to the start of this week, with five weeks still to go in the season, there have been 27 named storms, equivalent to the number in 2005, although in that year, there was also a short-lived, subtropical storm, which wasn’t named. Two of this year’s storms formed, and were named, before the June 1 official start of the season, and the first 24 named were the earliest on record for this amount.
These statistics are in keeping with scientists’ prediction for an increasing number of storms, rising seas, and unpredictable weather as the planet warms because of man-made activities, including carbon emissions. These developments hold particular threats for small, island states like Jamaica, with major population centres and economic activity on their coasts.
Hope Pastures, relatively, is several miles inland. But when the subdivision was being contemplated nearly 60 years ago, mitigating the effects of storms on utilities, especially its electricity supply system, was a matter of concern for the developers and the Government, which gave special approval for the project. Rather than overhead power transmission and distribution lines, Hope Pastures’ developers ran them underground. Purchasers paid more for this arrangement.
In recent years, though, the JPS and the residents have been at loggerheads over the underground cables. The residents want it maintained. The light and power company wants to abandon them for overhead lines. The company argues that if the residents want the system, they have to pay many, many millions of dollars for its upgrade.
Two and a half years ago, Supreme Court Justice Bryan Sykes sided with the JPS, holding that the company was under no statutory obligation to provide and maintain an underground system. Justice Jennifer Straw, at appeal, in delivering a unanimous judgment, held that the amended housing law, under which the Hope Pastures scheme was approved, had, in fact, established a statutory responsibility for the underground cabling but agreed with Justice Sykes that those arrangements did not of themselves lay an obligation for the system to be maintained. That obligation rested on the licence the company has to supply electricity to consumers.
“The appellants and the other residents, who have entered into contractual arrangements with JPS, have a legal right for their electricity supply to be maintained, as JPS is statutorily bound to do, albeit not by virtue of the HHS (Hope Housing Scheme) … ,” Justice Straw wrote in her ruling.
That ruling, however, the Court of Appeal said, was not an end to the matter, given the need to now determine whether, as Justice Straw put it, “JPS’ assertion that the underground system is unsafe and unreliable is true and would, therefore, prevent it from supplying an adequate and efficient supply to the Hope Pastures community”.
“This could only be determined after a trial, as it was not a preliminary issue resolved by Sykes J and, in fact, could only be resolved with the evidence of expert witnesses,” she said.
While these issues head back to the lower court, and likely new rounds of appeals, there is a need for a larger conversation of how, in the context of climate change, Jamaica protects its utilities and public infrastructure from more frequent hazards. Three decades ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, it took several months for basic electricity supply and telephone service to return when transmission lines were destroyed. A conversation started then about underground transmission lines. There was a stirring again on the issue after Hurricane Ivan in 2004. In both instances, the economy suffered.
These discussions have not been sustained, largely because the change would be expensive and no one has worked out how, or who, would pay for it.
First, there must be the determination that this, ultimately, is an inescapable obligation for Jamaica. We must then set a timeline, say 30 years, for it to be accomplished in critical areas of the country. At the same time, it cannot be beyond the ability of our brightest people to design a financing mechanism that is fair to the power company, consumers and the Government.