‘We broke the law’

Top officials at Grand Cayman’s Boatswain’s Beach tourist attraction may have committed offences under the country’s Water Authority and Electricity Laws by not ensuring that required operating and safety permits had been obtained, according to a report from the Office of the Complaints Commissioner.

‘The situation is embarrassing to all,’ wrote Complaints Commissioner John Epp in the conclusion of his office’s review of the matter.

Mr. Epp’s report stated that Boatswain’s, also known as the Cayman Turtle Farm, had not obtained a waste discharge licence from the Water Authority-Cayman despite the fact that former managing Director Ken Hydes and Acting Managing Director Joseph Ebanks acknowledged they had known a permit was required. That permit was not in place as of 24 April.

‘It is argued that effluent (all discharges from the Turtle Farm facility, liquid or solid)…may have interfered with the attractiveness to the water tourism industry of Cayman’s well-known surrounding reefs and contributed to the reduction in the production of beach sand,’ Mr. Epp’s report stated, quoting research conducted by the Department of Environment.

The report also cited ‘anecdotal observations’ by the DoE of a stunting of coral growth in the immediate area surrounding the West Bay facility, although it pointed out no recent environmental study had been done to quantify the effects of the effluent discharge.

Mr. Epp said the discharge permit was not obtained for the Turtle Farm’s older sewerage system, which includes the ‘touch-tanks’ where visitors can pet and even lift some of the smaller turtles out of the water.

A permit was obtained for the newer additions to the tourist attraction, including two swimming facilities and a predator tank, which holds sharks. Those are operated on a separate sewerage system, according to Mr. Epp.

Also, the complaints commissioner’s report stated that parts of Boatswain’s Beach were receiving electricity under an expired temporary connection agreement, known as an electrical services special connection.

The agreement was put in place in March 2006 with the condition that no buildings would use the power supply ‘except for testing and use of the lift station.’ However, Mr. Epp states in his report that power continued to be used beyond the agreement’s terms initially because 1,000 delegates were set to arrive for a Florida Caribbean Cruise Association conference in late September and early October of that year.

Boatswain’s Beach is a major attraction for Cayman’s cruise ship tourists.

‘According to (Mr. Ebanks), the power continues to be supplied through this illegal and unregulated system,’ Mr. Epp’s report stated.

Mr. Ebanks said he didn’t know about the situation involving the electricity use when he assumed the role of acting managing director last year. It was later discovered that certificates of occupancy had not been granted for many of the buildings and three water tanks at Boatswain’s Beach, which prevented the installation of permanent electricity meters.

As of 21 April, Mr. Epp’s report found that nine buildings and three pools at the tourism attraction had not received a certificate of occupancy. Those included the Turtle Farm Education Centre and the main reception building, as well as the two swimming pools and the predator tank.

The complaints commissioner did not recommend the closure of the Turtle Farm until its buildings and water facilities had been inspected because efforts continue to be made to complete those inspections. However, he said it was clear that the terms of the special electricity connection agreement had been violated.

‘(The agreement) was for a limited period of time and they (Turtle Farm) continued to run electricity for years and years,’ Mr. Epp said.

‘OK, we broke the law,’ Mr. Ebanks said during his statement to the complaints commissioner. ‘You can’t expect planning to do anything else but impose the strictest rules on us, and planning has to be safe. I don’t want planning to bend the rules for us. I got 400 people walking through (the water park). I got serious liability issues.’

Officials at Caribbean Utilities Company said that the Turtle Farm is being billed for its electrical usage, and said it was considered ‘a large user’ of electricity service. A CUC spokesman said there are several electricity meters on the Turtle Farm property, but he could not state whether they were temporary or permanent meters.

Pressure to open

The complaints commissioner’s report attempted to address reasons why first Mr. Hydes and then Mr. Ebanks apparently disregarded legal requirements to obtain a waste discharge licence and certificates of occupancy for Turtle Farm buildings and swimming pools.

Mr. Hydes said there was a great deal of pressure from the Ministry of Tourism on farm managers to open additions to the facility, including the swimming lagoons, and the predator tank.

At one point in his report, Mr. Epp cites minutes from a September 2006 meeting of the Boatswain’s Beach Board of Directors that record a message from the acting permanent secretary of the tourism ministry: ‘Good will of Cabinet now exhausted, project must open on time.’

Mr. Hydes also expressed a frustration with the time it was taking to get a waste discharge licence.

‘There is a view that management somehow made an effort to circumvent the law of the Cayman Islands and I’m really sick of it,’ Mr. Hydes is quoted as saying in the complaints commissioner’s report. ‘It was really a case of resources. The time and effort that we needed to do this on occasion was diverted to more pressing things. Quite serious things like actually keeping people paid.’

Mr. Epp said his staff had some sympathy for the pressure that Mr. Hydes was under. However, he noted that it was Mr. Hydes who took the decision to continue using the unauthorised electrical connection in violation of previous agreements.

The Water Authority was also cited in the report for essentially not doing enough to ensure the discharge permit was in place as required. At one point in 2005, authority Director Gelia Frederick-van Genderen considered referring the entire issue to the attorney general for prosecution. But that was never done.

The report quotes Ms Frederick-van Genderen stating her doubts that the Tourism Ministry would actually forward her information about the Turtle Farm to the AG, if she presented it to the ministry.

‘I was surprised (the Turtle Farm) was given a discharge permit for the new sewer system,’ Mr Epp said. ‘It may be argued that the regulator (the Water Authority) was in a stronger position to ensure compliance (for the older sewer system) had it refused a licence on the newer system.’

Conflict of interest

Until recently, Mr. Ebanks was a member of the Cayman Islands Water Authority Board of Directors.

The Caymanian Compass reported on 2 June that he had resigned that position citing other commitments.

That resignation was recommended by the complaints commissioner in his report.

Mr. Epp’s review found that Mr. Ebanks had not excused himself from certain meetings where issues regarding the Turtle Farm were brought up, following his joining of the tourist facility’s staff in early 2007.

‘The observer in this case could form the belief that the reason no decisions regarding (the Turtle Farm) were taken, or raised to be taken, by the (Water Authority) board was Mr. Ebanks’ continued presence,’ the complaints commissioner’s report stated.