Cayman’s environmental issues vast

Just days after his election to office, Cayman’s newest Leader of Government Business McKeeva Bush expressed his optimism about Cayman’s environmental fate at the opening of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum conference “Making the Right Connections: A conference on conservation in the UK OTs, Crown Dependencies and other small island communities” hosted by the Cayman Islands.
 
“I want to assure all those present that we are aware of the many challenges facing not only this country, but all of the countries and territories represented here, in protecting and managing our fragile environment and resources in the face of a growing list of impacts and threats,” he said.
 
“I would also like to say that our government is committed to taking the necessary steps to ensure that we have the legislative means and policy framework that will enable our environment and natural resources to be adequately protected and sustainably managed.”
 
Speaking at the same event, Mark Scotland, Cayman’s new Minister of Health, Environment, Youth, Sports & Culture also made a specific commitment to conserving Cayman’s environment.
 
“Specifically, the Government is committed to passing legislation that will provide a comprehensive framework for the conservation and management of our biological diversity – both in terms of species and habitats,” he said.
 
“Among other things, the legislation will allow us to acquire, through negotiated purchase, environmentally important areas in order to establish a national system of protected areas on land that parallels our long-established and successful system of Marine Parks.”
 
These words though encouraging belie the fact that Cayman today faces some challenges that continue to butt up against any commitments to sustainability that if they are to be achieved, must occur in tandem with development.
 
Later during the same conference Department of Environment Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie outlined how partnerships between government and organizations like the National Trust are able to contribute to the preservation of Cayman’s natural heritage through such bodies as the Environmental Advisory Committee, which can now red flag potential issues on planning applications. But without a conservation law in place, not much real protection is offered to Cayman’s limited landmass and the flora and fauna that inhabit it. The proposed law, promised yet not passed by the previous government, would for example establish a national Conservation Council populated by the Department of Environment, the Ministry, the Planning department and the National Trust.
 
So for now, it is up to Cayman’s inhabitants to do the right thing on their own while they await the proposed legislation.
 
Planning Director Kenneth Ebanks acknowledges that Cayman’s continued progress as a country relies on its physical development which poses major challenges to the environment, but can’t help but to maintain a positive attitude.
 
“Over the past 30 years we could have done a lot worse,” he says. “We may be miles behind some jurisdictions on environmental matters but we are a very young country, and if we learn from the mistakes made by others it may make it easier.”
 
But he says unfettered development is a national issue in more than one respect.
 
“We have to educate the powers that be that development and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive. But because development has played such a critical role in the economic development of the Island, if you reduce the government revenue and economic contribution of physical development, with what will you replace that lost revenue?”
 
“That is a big problem for policymakers as we don’t have the type of economic structure that you can give tax breaks to people to develop sustainably and not be too much of a burden on the tax base.”
 
He noted that with no quick fixes, and the tourism and financial services industries under threat, the solutions are not simple.
 
“We have to put up a very convincing argument for people to be a lot more environmentally conscious in their development activities.”
 
He cites one possible example: “A spoiled natural environment does not lend itself well to the tourism product that you are trying to sell. If we can preserve it, we can only position ourselves better as a superior player in a very competitive tourism market.”
 
One glaring sign of Cayman’s physical development is not hard to miss – the massive pile of trash next to George Town known as Mount Trashmore. Located next to the North Sound and once a fair distance away from town, this mountain is growing taller by the day and is no longer “out of sight out of mind.” Indeed topping 65 feet in height it is Cayman’s highest point, and its aroma carries farther afield than the 30-odd acres it occupies.
 
In May 2006, then-Works Minister Arden McLean announced his mission to deal with Mount Trashmore’s continued growth. At that time the Minister had said a reassessment of waste management strategies throughout the Cayman Islands was under way, and that the Ministry was looking at several different kinds of waste management systems, including waste-to-energy.
 
Later the same year, Camana Bay developer Dart expressed interest in taking over the landfill, in a land swap with government but the deal fell through, and it was also revealed any kind of waste to energy solution was at least four years away.
 
Since then, Mount Trashmore has continued its upward progression.
 
Sean McGinn, deputy director of the Department of Environmental Health, manages the dump and has been waiting to act on the findings Solid Waste Strategic Management Committee created under Mr. McLean.
 
He says the dump situation is being dealt with simply: garbage dropped off at the landfill is accorded to a specific location by type, and the open areas are periodically being covered over with a specially formulated aggregate much more frequently, thanks to a new machine.
 
Department of Environmental Health Director Roydell Carter says that at this stage specifics about the landfill’s future are up in the air due to the recent change of government.
 
“They are still trying to get projects prioritized, and here at the DoEH we are trying to maintain the landfill as best as we can with the resources that we have – which is a continuing effort,” he said.
 
Mr. Carter said he has seen that in recent years people are clearly becoming more conscious and more environmentally aware, which he thinks in contributing to the increased focus on the landfill.
 
But while that may be translating into increased concern, the amount of waste being generated in Grand Cayman continues to grow with an average of 120,000 tons coming in annually.
 
“All the waste has to go someplace,” said Mr. Carter. “Whatever waste comes to the landfill, we have to manage it.”
 
And whatever the fate of that waste may be, it is up to the government to make further decisions on the technology, be it bulldozers or power stations that will be used to manage the landfill.
 
“If any change is going to occur, what we are talking about is a change in the engineering of the landfill that is going to take money, and I am waiting on discussions and directions from the new administration with that regard,” says Mr. Carter.
 
In the meantime, he says the public can do more in how they handle their waste.
 
“They could be more proactive and separate their aluminium and take it to the recycling containers at the supermarkets, or directly to the landfill,” he says.
 
“And the public could be encouraged to do some composting, for example of yard waste. I have seen some people doing it; it’s easy to construct a simple composter in your yard. All you need to do turn the material you put in it over every so often. When you mow the lawn for instance you can take the chippings and put them in.”
 
And while Mr. Carter, Mr. McGinn and their staff are doing their best to deal with Cayman’s garbage, another kind of waste is also threatening to come to a head – and that is sewage.
 
An estimated 5 million gallons of wastewater is generated every day on Grand Cayman. Some is handled by the Cayman Water Authority’s West Bay Road sewerage plant which pumps sewage into a sequencing batch reactor where it is treated and disposed in deep wells. 
 
Professionally managed and operated, problems with the plant are immediately addressed, and effluent is constantly monitored to ensure it meets required parameters before it is pumped into the ground.  If it doesn’t, the sewage is stored at the facility until the problem can be fixed. Mrs. Frederick van-Genderen says much care is paid in determining where effluent is pumped once it leaves the treatment plant.
 
“Effluent is injected into disposal wells at a depth of 40 to 100 feet below the water table, depending on location, to ensure injection is into brackish or saline, not fresh water,” she says.
 
The lateral path that the effluent takes belowground should in theory prevent it from travelling upwards into freshwater that may overlay it, or up to the ground surface where people could come into contact with it. Also, pathogens contained in effluent should die off due to travel time through the brackish water, before it reaches the sea.
 
However, Mrs. Frederick-van Genderen admits theory does not always reflect reality.
 
“That is not to say that there is no contamination of the freshwater lenses with wastewater effluent,” says Mrs. Frederick-van Genderen.
 
Grand Cayman also has about 16,000 onsite treatment systems which vary from cesspits to septic tanks to aerobic treatment systems (also referred to as package plants). More than 50 per cent of all wastewater treated on Grand Cay-man is treated by on-site septic tank.
 
Significantly, George Town is not serviced by the West Bay Road system.
 
Mr. Ebanks notes that not only can this lead to potential problems on its own, the town is visited by millions of cruise tourists annually.
 
“The current practice of out of sight out of mind at some point will reach a saturation point,” he says.
 
“The process could be hurried along with increased population. Add in 1 million cruise shippers and 500,000 stayover tourists and yet we are planning for 55,000 people.”
He says that while it may be not only prohibitively expensive but also extremely complicated to hook up downtown to a central sewer system, replacing aging septic systems with a few larger package plants servicing three or four buildings each might be one solution.
 
Mrs. Frederick van Genderen says the current approach by the Authority is that any new development that cannot be hooked up to the West Bay Beach Road Sewerage System requires a septic tank and a deep well as a minimum.
 
“However, if the development generates over 1,800 gallon wastewater per day, an aerobic treatment unit is required. Provided they are properly installed and maintained, these units do meet what is known as the 30/30 standard,” she said.
 
Current conditions, therefore, rely on owners and operators of these systems to ensure they are meeting the parameters before treated wastewater is pumped into the deep wells.
 
Deputy Planning Director Haroon Pandohie says Planning requires a sewerage system to be in place, but does not monitor it once it’s confirmed that it has been constructed.
 
“Basically, we send the plans over to the Water Authority who tell us the size the plant needs to be, which we then ensure is in the plans and is constructed as indicated before we issue the Certificate of Occupancy,” he says.
 
“But after that, it’s up to the goodwill of the residents on that property to make sure it’s properly maintained.”
 
That means at present, Water Authority staff do not test or inspect plants unless a noticeable problem is reported.
 
While many of the plants on the Island appear to be operating without obvious problems, a leaking or badly functioning system, which still performs its primary function of drawing off sewage from interior plumbing, may still be pumping raw sewage into Cayman’s groundwater.
 
“There were many systems in existence prior to the establishment of the Water Authority’s legislation,” said Mrs. Frederick van Genderen.
 
“Given the rapid rate of development since that time, limited resources have focused on getting new developments – which now far outnumber the pre-existing – in line with current standards for effluent disposal.”
 
Mrs. Frederick-van Genderen says poorly or untreated wastewater creates a health hazard and an environmental hazard.
 
“Extreme examples of health hazards are what happen after a natural disaster and wastewater is not treated. There is a risk of water-borne diseases such as cholera, dysentery and other gastro-intestinal diseases. The environmental consequence of poorly treated wastewater is that the natural environment is at risk of being degraded,” she says.
 
Clearly, some of the major forces impacting Cayman’s environment are diverse and show no signs of slowing. But change is needed, that is also clear.
 
Whether the change happens from below, with the private sector and non-governmental organizations driving the change, or from above, with a government willing to take the reins in managing Cayman‘s environment, there is still a need for an overall policy framework that supports this.
Mr. Ebanks says that while some green talk he has heard over the years may be mere lip service, he is optimistic.
 
“There are fortunately a number of genuine folks fighting for a greener cleaner world doing what they can to make their small sacrifice,” he said.

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