Bahamas In 'Critical And Dire' Need Of Environmental Protection Act
BY FREDERICK R. M. SMITH, Q.C.
THE Bahamas is in critical and dire need of an Environmental Protection Act. This legislation has been promised in the past by both the FNM and PLP governments.
As the Bahamas broadens its industrial investment profile; encourages large scale urban development; promotes all inclusive anchor projects by Bahamians and foreigners and continues its growth and development, it becomes more and more urgent for an independent regulatory body with teeth, to protect our often pristine, and always fragile environment.
The Bahamas, as a Small Island Nation, must make protecting the environment a priority. It is also important that stakeholders and interested parties who may be affected by industrial and/or other urban developments have an opportunity to be properly consulted. This has been repeatedly affirmed by our Supreme Court, Court of Appeal and Privy Council in the Guana Cay and Abaco Wilson City Power Plant litigation.
The BEST Commission has been established for years but it is not a statutory body and needs to be institutionally created by legislation to make it effective and relevant.
There is limited space for growth and development throughout our archipelago of islands and best environmental practices also need to be observed in crowded islands such as New Providence where industrial and urban growth is booming.
The Planning and Subdivision Act was a great step in providing an opportunity for stakeholders to be consulted and participate in developments before they occur and the requirement for environmental impact assessments in that legislation is to be commended.
However, without a corresponding Environmental Protection Act and the establishment of a statutory process for the conduct of EIA’s, it will create confusion and litigation; more importantly expectations all around will be disappointed.
Further, the need to implement a health and safety committee under the Health and Safety at Work Act is important to protect the public and workers’ rights, in particular at industrial plants.
This inevitably leads us to the issue of Freeport being the “Industrial Capital” of the Bahamas.
The need for environmental, health and safety at work legislation, with teeth, is even more important as thousands of Bahamian workers and upwards of 60,000 Bahamian residents, are exposed to industrial hazards, toxic wastes and other environmental dangers moreso than in the rest of the Bahamas.
As there may be oil exploration in the Northern Bahama Banks, the Grand Bahama Shipyard grows, Burmah Oil (eastern GB), Borco and Focol expand, other hydrocarbon related industrial facilities are born and developed in Freeport, and urban growth continues, the need for regulating, policing and enforcing environmental protection is acute and critical.
Given the existence of the Hawksbill Creek Agreement there is an issue as to whether Central Government and/or the Grand Bahama Port Authority has jurisdiction over environmental and developmental matters in Freeport and/or whether each of them may in different ways share jurisdiction, which may in addition be overlapping.
I commend the Minister of Transport and Aviation, Mrs. Glenys Hanna-Martin for her commitment to a fearless and transparent investigation into the recent and repeating oil spills in Freeport. The recent oil spills highlight need for environmental legislation.
In addition, I urge Minister Shane Gibson, Minister of Labour and National Insurance, to continue his efforts in developing the Regulations and then to appoint a Health and Safety Committee under the Health and Safety at Work Act in Freeport to protect workers.
Such legislation would ensure that those responsible for any damage to the environment and for any injuries to workers and the public would be held financially accountable and could be made to clean up any damage subject to fines and/or penalties of a criminal nature.
Make no mistake about this, damage to the environment is a crime against nature. We are only hurting ourselves if we ignore it!
The Grand Bahama Port Authority is responsible under Clause 13 of the 1965 amendment of the Hawksbill Creek Agreement to protect the environment and health and safety of workers and residents in Freeport.
Some years ago a very comprehensive set of proposed environmental and health and safety bye laws under the Freeport Bye-Laws Act was submitted by the Grand Bahama Port Authority to the Government, but have not been implemented.
They need to be brought into effect! The people of Freeport deserve a clean and managed environment and the workers at the industrial plants of Freeport are entitled to the protection of their health and safety rights!
As a 33-year homeowner of Freeport and a licensee of the GBPA I urge the GBPA and Government to work closely together to implement these bye laws so that the GBPA can effectively undertake its duties, responsibilities and obligations under the Hawksbill Creek Agreement.
The GBPA has already established an Environmental Department but again, like the BEST Commission, it has no statutory teeth.
Under the Freeport Act 1993, the Government, the Grand Bahama Development Company (Devco) and the GBPA agreed to “Introduce additional environment frameworks for development”.
It is high time that this provision under the Act was put into effect.
It is high time that the Government and the GBPA make good on their promises to protect the environment and the health and safety of workers and put in place the necessary laws and regulations.
Window dressing will no longer cut it.