The impacts of environmental statements

Environmental impact statements, we would concede, are desirable when major projects might inflict substantial, and reliably assessable, harm to our environment – but only in rare and exceptional instances should their results be solely determinative of whether a project should move forward.

Other considerations, which should be given equal or substantial weight, include an economic impact study, a project’s contribution to the local commonweal, and a clear-eyed cost-benefit analysis.

Consider for a moment this government’s position that the proposed George Town port project deserves, indeed requires, an environmental impact statement. We agree.

However, we do not agree with Deputy Premier Moses Kirkconnell’s declaration that if the impact statement is not “successful” (whatever that means), the port project should not move forward.

For more than 20 years, successive governments have been pondering the advisability of modernizing our downtown cruise ship and cargo landing infrastructure. In the meantime, the major cruise ship companies have warned Cayman that if it didn’t improve its docking facilities, they would begin to send their ships elsewhere – and they’ve been doing it. Passenger counts are down, super-sized ships cannot dock here, arriving visitors are spending less, and downtown retailers are both hurting and howling.

In order to move into modernity (and away from our tender boats), governments have made false starts with various private sector “partners,” including Misener Marine, Atlantic Star, DECCO, GLF (an Italian interest) and, of course, China Harbour Engineering Company. All have come to naught. DECCO, a Dart-owned company, supposedly spent millions on its preparatory plans, including an environmental impact assessment, before leaving the negotiating table – and taking its plans with it.

Political carnage along the way has been substantial. Several Port Authority board members, including chair Stefan Baraud, either resigned or had their appointments terminated over dissatisfaction with the procurement process. Former MLA Cline Glidden led negotiations with the Italians; later, former MLA Ellio Solomon found himself face to face with the Chinese. (Eventually Cayman settled up with the spurned Italian firm at a cost of nearly $2 million.)

And so, after 20 years of researching, lobbying, politicking, planning, and paying off former vendors to avoid potential lawsuits, we appear to be prepared to make a go/no-go decision based on a single environmental impact statement.

If that is the case, we would offer the following:

If government is going to require environmental impact statements, then government must pay for them. Too often, as in the case of the East End Seaport project, the developer is asked to fund the research (at a cost that can easily escalate into the hundreds of thousands of dollars). Once the report is produced, its credibility invariably is attacked for being “bought and paid for.”

Increasingly, calls for environmental impact statements have become the “tool of choice” for those who wish to slow down, if not stop, progress on any given project – be it a South Sound residential development or The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, on Seven Mile Beach.

Importantly, we must be realistic about the limitations of environmental impact assessments and what they can contribute to the decision-making process. Much of what passes for “scientific certainty” today often turns out to be nothing of the sort tomorrow.

Mr. Kirkconnell is making a very large bet – the redevelopment of our ports and, by extension, our entire downtown – on the results of an environmental study. We would urge him to broaden his criteria for making this momentous decision that will affect these islands for the foreseeable future.

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