Today, the 13-member Council is scheduled to hold its first meeting at 2 p.m. in the Government Administration Building.
Some background: After taking office in May 2013, Minister of Environment Wayne Panton made it one of his top priorities to approve conservation legislation, various versions of which had been debated over the past decade or so. Following outcry from corners of the public — including the Cayman Compass, Chamber of Commerce, C4C, CIREBA, opposition members and others concerned about textual ambiguities and potential infringements on private property rights — Mr. Panton and the Progressives-led government did, finally, relent somewhat, supporting some 35 amendments to the bill before it was passed by a unanimous vote. The result, as we opined in an editorial headline, was a “Bad bill a bit better.”
Yet serious concerns remain, particularly in regard to the sweeping powers and discretion granted to the Council and Director of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie to stymie any development they don’t like.
The law stipulates that every government entity (except Cabinet) shall “consult with the Council and take into account any views of the Council before taking any action” (including granting licenses or permits) they feel “would or would be likely to have an adverse effect on the environment generally or on any natural resource.”
Further, every government entity (except Cabinet) shall “apply for and obtain the approval of the Council before taking any action” they feel “would or would be likely to have an adverse effect, whether directly or indirectly, on a protected area or on the critical habitat of a protected species.”
In regard to those matters, the law clearly subordinates the rest of government to the Council and its opinions, stating that “if the Council considers that the adverse impact of the proposed action cannot be satisfactorily mitigated by conditions, the Council shall so direct the originating authority and that authority shall refuse to agree to or refuse to proceed with the proposed action.”
The Council also has the ability to require, at its discretion, that developers pay for “environmental impact assessments” before forging ahead with projects, and can require the developer to provide, up front, “a performance bond or an escrow account” in amounts determined by the Council, again at its discretion.
In addition to being costly and time-consuming, such assessments are often perceived as being tainted, somehow, when the applicant is the one footing the bill for them. (See, for example, opponents’ general dismissal of the near-spotless environmental impact study produced by consultants for the Dart Group’s proposed waste management facility near Midland Acres.)
The law has teeth, giving Ms. Ebanks-Petrie the power to issue binding cease and desist orders to anyone who fails to consult with the Council; and remember, this is for projects environmental officials feel might negatively impact the environment, or any natural resource, generally — not just when endangered orchids, endemic snails or local lizards might be threatened.
The penalties for disobeying the Council or Ms. Ebanks-Petrie are substantial, with the default being four years’ imprisonment, a $500,000 fine and/or other punishments that may be imposed by the courts.
That’s the nature of the beast that Cayman has created for itself. We have yet to learn of its temperament.
Since today’s meeting of the Conservation Council is open to members of the public, we encourage those who championed the law, who opposed it or who are simply curious about it, to drop in if they can and help keep watch over one of the newest, and most powerful, extensions of Cayman’s government.
We can’t promise you what will happen in today’s meeting, but we can promise you that the Compass will be there, with eyes wide open.