Foes trash Belize dam plans

Canadian Press

LONDON (CP) - A Canadian-owned company was accused of using shoddy geological work in its plans for a dam in Belize on Wednesday by opponents of the project fighting its environmental approval in the British Privy Council. 

A five-man judicial committee of the Privy Council heard that a series of studies have shown the Chalillo dam backed by Fortis Inc. of Newfoundland would sit on shale and sandstone, not granite as a Belizean environmental assessment was told. 

"It is quite obvious that it isn't granite," said Richard Clayton, a lawyer for a coalition of environmental groups known as the Belize Association of Non-Governmental Organizations, or BACONGO. 

Calyton said he wasn't arguing that a dam can't be built on sandstone at a much greater cost than has been projected for the Chalillo project, but "it isn't the dam that we've been looking at in the EIA (environmental impact assessment) process." 

The environmental coalition wants the Privy Council to order a new environmental assessment of the $30-million-US dam, which is being built by the Belize Electric Co. Ltd., or BECOL, a subsidiary of Fortis. Construction began earlier this year. 

Fortis is a St. John's-based holding company that operates seven electric companies in Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Ontario, the Cayman Islands and New York. Its wholly owned subsidiary, Fortis Properties, owns hotels, office buildings and malls throughout Atlantic Canada. 

The Privy Council has scheduled two days to hear the appeal brought by BACONGO. The council acts as the final court of appeal for a number of Commonwealth countries including Belize. 

BACONGO says the 49-metre high dam will flood 810 hectares of rainforest that has been left untouched by humans since the age of the Mayas about 500 years ago. The project, it argues, will put at risk habitat that jaguar, tapir and endangered scarlet macaws depend on for their survival. 

But John Evans, vice-president of BECOL and chief engineer at Fortis, defended the project, saying the rock on which the dam is being built is similar to granite, although it was misidentified by a laboratory in Costa Rica. 

"There was an unfortunate misnaming, if you will, of the actual rock type and it was called granite," he said outside the hearing. 

"The chemical and technical composition of the sandstone there and granite are very, very similar . . . It really doesn't affect the ability of the rock to make a sound foundation for a dam." 

Evans said the company put forward all of the negative consequences it believes the dam poses to the area during the environmental assessment process conducted by authorities in Belize, who he thinks are best placed to decide the project's impact. 

"I don't think it's right for people in Britain here or Canada or the U.S. to make those decisions on behalf of the people of Belize," he added. 

An increase in demand for electricity in Belize led to the project. The country currently relies on energy imports from neighbouring Mexico to meet demand. 

Evans said the dam is the cheapest way to boost the country's energy supply, arguing it will double the output of a nearby generating plant that supplies one-third of Belize's electricity. 

"This is the least cost source of energy for the people of Belize at this time, we stand by that," he said. 

But Clayton disputed the company's claim that it aims to supply cheap electricity to Belize, saying the dam will only provide enough electricity to power three large hotels. 

After showing the judicial committee pictures of a shallow and slow-running Macal River, Clayton said the dam will have little, if any, public benefit. 

"We are not talking anything like Niagara Falls, quite the opposite, this is a modest river," he said.

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