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NEPA, Windalco head to court today over Rio Cobre fish kill - Environmentalists want agency to collar more companies over breaches

Published:Tuesday | November 26, 2019 | 12:42 AMNickoy Wilson/Gleaner Writer

Environmentalists have welcomed a move by the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) to lay criminal charges against bauxite mining company Windalco, but they have asserted that the regulator needs to do more to protect the environment and citizens affected.

Windalco, which is a joint venture between the Russian-based UC Rusal and the Government of Jamaica, is charged with breaching the Wildlife Protection Act in relation to the release of effluent into the Rio Cobre last month, causing a massive fish kill and reports of several persons falling ill after using water or consuming fish from the river.

The matter will be heard in the St Catherine Parish Court today.

“It is not my impression that NEPA taking legal action against companies is the normal thing. It is unusual. It should be normal,” environmentalist Peter Espeut told The Gleaner yesterday.

“I consider this highly unusual. I am happy they have done it, don’t misunderstand me, [but] I would like it to be something ordinary,” he added. “If more companies were prosecuted, then they would think twice before polluting, but because they know they are going to get a ‘bly’, I can’t think of any company that really, seriously, is afraid of being prosecuted for pollution.”

Hugh Dixon, executive director of the Southern Trelawny Environmental Agency, pointed to another factor bogging down the agency.

“I don’t think NEPA has been strident enough, historically, in dealing the environmental problems of the nation. I think they find themselves in a compromising situation because they are also the regulators and monitors of the environment for the State, but they also issue licences to people who would also be involved in the degrading the environment as well, so there is a conflicting role as a regulator,” Dixon said.

“We would call the State, the Government and supporting agencies like NEPA to at least assert their responsibility to protect the welfare of our environment locally, our people and the standard that ensures sustainable development going forward rather than overlooking or ignoring some of the basic fundamentals that are considered in respect of standardism,” he added.

In a Gleaner interview in October, Richard Nelson, senior manager of the environmental management subdivision at NEPA, said that the agency had issued Windalco with an enforcement order, recommending that the company increase the capacity of the current holding pond and construct a new one following similar crises in 2018.

The company, however, appealed the enforcement order, citing technical and budgetary constraints.

NEPA has issued the bauxite mining company with at least six enforcement notices since 2011 for pollution of the Rio Cobre.