Sat | Mar 6, 2021

Puerto Bueno mining permit amended

Published:Wednesday | January 13, 2021 | 12:23 AMJovan Johnson and Janet Silvera/Senior Gleaner Writers
Prime Minister Andrew Holness.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness.

Bengal Development Limited’s permit to mine in the ecologically sensitive Puerto Bueno Mountains was quietly amended in December to include the requirement for a $40 million performance bond to be paid within 30 days of the company getting the new document.

That change was among several new conditions and deadline revisions contained in the new 76-condition permit issued on December 17, 2020.

The performance bond was not among the original 72 conditions in the original November 5 permit which the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) made public amid growing outcry to allow the mining of limestone, although it was contained in a permit the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) submitted to The Gleaner on November 8.

NEPA and its parent ministry, the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, which is headed by Prime Minister Andrew Holness, are expected to be grilled by the Mikael Phillips-chaired Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) of Parliament today.

Holness has been facing significant pushback for overturning the state environment watchdog’s decision to refuse to grant a permit to Bengal to mine 123 acres of a 569-acre St Ann property, which critics say contains an almost untouched dry limestone forest and endemic flora and fauna.

The performance bond, which is to be secured by a bank guarantee, is to be held by NEPA and is to be used to mitigate “any environmental damage and restore any natural resources impacted by the development”.

Holness made reference to the bond in a November 12 speech in St Ann in which he said if Bengal violated any of the conditions, “I’m the first one to shut it down”.

“The bond was always a requirement,” the OPM said last evening in emailed response to The Gleaner. “Its omission from the November press release was an error. It was part of the document sent to the permittee (Bengal).”

The absence of the bond condition was an “internal error” on NEPA’s part, added the OPM.

The OPM further said that Bengal has until January 17 to pay the bond and that NEPA would “take the necessary enforcement actions” if the money is not paid over in time.

The additional permit changes included extending deadlines for submissions relating to 12 conditions based on requests from Bengal and NEPA’s internal review of the original document, Holness’ office said.

One of the major changes includes giving Bengal 90 days instead of the original 30 days after receiving the permit to pay a $4 million administrative fee for one year of special monitoring.

The emergency response, maintenance and quarry restoration and rehabilitation plans are now to be submitted within 180 days.

One of the new conditions includes the development of a ground control management which must be submitted to NEPA.

The restrictions will affect the profitability of the quarry, Kashif Sweet, the managing partner for the Florida-based Jamaica World LLC which owns Bengal, complained in November.

It remains unclear when any mining work will start and emails and messages sent to Sweet for a response to the latest developments have not been answered.

Some $635 million in taxes is projected to flow into government coffers and 100 jobs created with a wider commercial pitch for the whole property.

NEPA is the administrative arm for the Natural Resources and Conservation Authority (NRCA) and the Town and Country Planning Authority (TCPA) – the two entities which had initially ruled against Bengal on May 8, 2020.

The documents submitted to Parliament are also giving some more details on the two options NEPA gave the NRCA/TCPA - to recommend refusal of the permit or to grant it but with under 10 specific conditions.

The state environmental watchdogs refused Bengal’s application, noting that the development was contrary to the St Ann Development Order, the “irreplaceable” and “deleterious” impact of the quarry on an area of “environmental significance” which “may nullify any trade-offs to be considered”.

Other factors included air quality, public health, the “unprecedented number” of objections from residents and stakeholders and the concerns of the Forestry Department which NEPA said were “material” as the entity argued that the environmental impact assessment conducted by Bengal “did not propose feasible and effective mitigation measures”.

The NRCA law allows applicants to appeal, which is what Bengal successfully did in July before Leslie Campbell, a then minister in Holness’ office.

The minister considered submissions from Bengal and sought technical advice, according to NEPA’s report which gives slight insight into the appeal process but scanty on the arguments put forward.

Submissions were heard from NEPA’s technical team, Bengal and its consultant.

Campbell considered “several factors”, the report said, pointing to the process the NRCA used to arrive at its decision, land management and use, minerals and environmental and health hazards, regulation.

“On this basis the appeal was upheld,” NEPA said, without any further details on precisely how each factor was weighted including whether there was any issue with how the NRCA made its determination.

Holness has dismissed some of the criticisms, arguing that his administration took an “enlightened decision” made to protect the environment while ensuring economic development.

In December, eight residents sued the Government over the issue claiming that Holness’ reversal “abrogates, abridges, or infringes” several constitutional provisions including the right to their right to enjoy a healthy and productive environment free from threat of injury, environmental abuse, and degradation.

The 569-acre property contains over 335 million tons of limestone reserves and Bengal is proposing to mine over 35 million over the 20-year phased roll-out of its project.