by Will Hilliard
Newfoundland-based power company Fortis Inc. wouldn’t comment Thursday on a dramatic turnaround in a Belize court, in which the Belize government denied giving Fortis permission to build a hydro dam in one of Central America’s last undisturbed forests.
"It’s before the courts; we’ll wait until the judge renders his decision and will make a comment at that time," said Donna Hynes, manager of investor and public relations with the company in St. John’s.
"I will say to you, though, that there is an environmental compliance plan between the government of Belize and BECOL (Belize Electric Company), which is the Fortis subsidiary, and we are adhering to the highest of environmental standards on this project, as we are with all Fortis projects."
Gráinne Ryder, spokeswoman for Toronto-based Probe International, the group which is leading the charge in Canada against Fortis’ plans, said it is obvious the Belize government is "backpedalling" to distance itself from any liability issues regarding the dam.
"The prime minister of Belize had said it was a go. It was even in Fortis’ annual report that the project was on. It was quite stunning that the lawyers would suddenly say that they didn’t give official approval when Fortis’s own lawyers submitted letters which indicated the government had given them approval," Ryder said.
"So, whether this is trickery, a way for (the government of Belize) to get out of the lawsuits with a wink and a nod with Fortis, we don’t know. We hope that the final decision (from the Supreme Court in September) will quash any environmental approval, and that the government will initiate public hearings and get a proper environmental assessment done."
Ryder said that before Belize’s Supreme Court last week, government lawyers said no final environmental approval has yet been granted for the Chalillo hydro dam on a remote section of the Macal River, a project which has put Fortis under fire from environmentalists in Belize, the U.S., Mexico and Canada.
In another unexpected twist in a Belize courtroom last month, when the first of two lawsuits filed against the controversial proposal went before a judge, authorities claimed they had not yet approved the dam’s construction, she said.
A second lawsuit, the one heard last week, challenged the government’s environmental clearance of the proposed dam, which would be constructed in an area that provides Belize’s only known breeding sites for scarlet macaws, tapirs, howler monkeys, jaguars, and other threatened and endangered wildlife.
Critics argue that Belize has better, cheaper generating options than the seven megawatts the Chalillo dam could provide.
Belize’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) — the regulatory agency responsible for licensing power companies and protecting consumer interests — has said it only approved a power-purchase agreement for the dam but not its construction.
As a result, Supreme Court Justice Christopher Blackman dismissed last month the first lawsuit as “premature.”
In appealing the ruling, the consumer and environmental groups known collectively as the Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs argues the PUC’s approval of a power-purchase agreement is illegal.
The group wants the agreement voided because it says the PUC failed to hold public hearings and invite competitive bids from private power suppliers, as required by Belize’s electricity act.
Meanwhile, Ryder says her group has obtained a report prepared by Fortis consultants, AMEC, which estimates that Canadian companies stand to win about $12 million worth of engineering and equipment contracts if the dam goes ahead.
Ryder says AMEC is the company that Fortis hired last year to prepare an environmental assessment of the Chalillo proposal. The Belize Alliance of Conservation NGOs maintains the report is biased.
, Executive Director, BACONGO, Belize (501) 223-3385
, Probe International, Toronto, Canada Phone: (416) 964-9223 ext.228.
, Natural Resources Defense Council, Phone (202) 289-2388
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