Belize dam plan flawed, critics say: Canadian firm accused of doing shoddy work

December 4, 2003 Thursday

by Kevin Ward

LONDON - A Canadian-owned company was accused of using shoddy geological work in its plans for a dam in Belize yesterday 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 (U.S.) dam, which is being built by the Belize Electric Co. Ltd., or BECOL, a subsidiary of Fortis. Construction began 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.

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.

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