Conservation council divided over extent of role and powers

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All government agencies will be required to consult with environment officials on any decision or application that could impact natural resources under guidelines approved Wednesday for the implementation of the National Conservation Law. 

The guidance notes include a long list of decisions, ranging from burials at sea and trade and business licenses to planning and coastal works applications, to be referred for consultation. 

Council member Davey Ebanks and planning director Haroon Pandohie voiced opposition to the number and breadth of decisions and applications included on the list. 

Describing the process as an “unworkable, inter-department bureaucracy,” Mr. Ebanks said, “What we are creating is not going to be accepted and could create more furor than it is worth.” 

He refuted suggestions from Director of the Department of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie that the list was simply enshrining in law a practice that had been going on voluntarily for a number of years. 

“This has not been done for decades. This has never before been done to this extent,” Mr. Ebanks said during a debate on the document at the first public meeting of the new National Conservation Council. 

Ms. Ebanks-Petrie said the guidance notes simply put into effect the council’s mandate under section 41 of the law, which requires consultation on “any undertaking or approval” that could have an “adverse impact on the environment generally.” 

The guidelines include an extensive list of criteria that will trigger referral to the Department of Environment’s technical review committee, which has been given delegated authority to review such applications.  

The list of triggers includes activities on the coast (within 500 feet of the high water mark), larger planning applications, including subdivisions or agriculture on land of an acre or more, telecommunications installations, marine moorings, animal control applications, and licensing of trade and business activities which utilize natural resources. 

The relevant government department will be responsible for referring the application to the committee for comment. Ms. Ebanks-Petrie said the instructions formalize a process that is already in effect on an ad-hoc basis. She said the list had to be broad to cover any decision which could potentially adversely affect the environment. 

“The fact is that the DoE has been reviewing planning applications [and] coastal works applications and providing advice to government entities on a range of issues for years,” she said. “The law is simply making consultations that already take place mandatory as opposed to voluntary.” For example, she said, in 2013, the DoE reviewed and made recommendations on 60 planning applications, ranging from small coastal developments to large Planned Area Development applications. 

She said the law raises the department to the level of a “statutory consultee,” like the Water Authority, which is also consulted on planning applications. “If I thought this was going to bring the whole country to a grinding halt, I wouldn’t be a part of recommending it,” she said. 

Mr. Ebanks remained unconvinced, describing the director’s explanations as “peas and rice.”  

He added that the council risked creating a “fiefdom” that undermined the smooth running of the law. The guidance notes were approved in their original form by the council after a motion to amend them from Mr. Ebanks, supported by Mr. Pandohie, was voted down. 

Ms. Ebanks-Petrie said the broad aim was to integrate consideration of the environment into the national decision-making process. 

“If we are to achieve any level of sustainability in our country, we must ensure that the environmental implications of our decisions are taken into account,” she said. 

The new measures will not officially take effect until the National Conservation Law is enacted in full by Cabinet. The council is in the midst of preliminary work designed to facilitate the smooth operation of the law when it comes into force. 

“These are preparatory matters so that the law can be implemented in full at some point, hopefully, in the near future,” said Christine Rose-Smyth, chair of the council. 

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