You can’t make a rum cake without breaking a few eggs — and you can’t build a new cruise pier in George Town harbor without demolishing a significant amount of coral reef.
As the recently published Environmental Impact Assessment illustrates, the proposed Grand Cayman cruise berthing facility is of such magnitude that its construction and operation will have unavoidable negative effects on the surrounding aquatic environment, including the destruction of 15 acres of coral reef, as well as “increased stress on and degradation of” an additional 15-20 acres of reef.
The dredging for the project will result in the loss of one of the Cayman Islands’ signature dive sites: the ever-popular wreck of the Balboa, a 375-foot freighter that sank in 1932. Further, according to the report, turbidity plumes (i.e. vast quantities of muck and mire stirred up by dredging and operations) may degrade the quality of diving at the spectacular Devil’s Grotto caverns off Eden Rock, and the Cali shipwreck, a 200-foot-long four-masted schooner which sank in 1944.
Quantifying the impacts in terms of dollars — that tourists won’t be spending on recreation and watersport activities in the harbor — consultants estimate that the damage to marine resources will cost Cayman about $100 million to $165 million over 20 years. That’s the negative side of the ledger (and doesn’t include the intrinsic, emotional and thus unquantifiable dimensions of how people may feel about doing harm to coral reefs and the living creatures they support).
On the plus side, an earlier report, focusing on the business case for the project, estimated that the new cruise port would create nearly 1,000 jobs and inject $250 million or more into the local economy over 20 years. The project, as contemplated, would include two piers with space for four large cruise ships (including two suitable for the largest Oasis class vessels), but would not do away with the need for tender operations on days when five or more cruise ships are in port.
The new Environmental Impact Assessment contains other items of interest, such as the consideration that some of the impacted reef, and also the Balboa, could be “relocated” out of harm’s way. However, that effort could cost some $13 million, with no guarantees that it will work, and with the caveat that a coral relocation program cannot possibly save all of the coral from being destroyed.
In their assessment, consultants suggested a revised design for the port that would decrease the amount of dredging required, but would increase the area of “reclaimed” land to 7.7 acres, which could potentially be used for shops, restaurants and administrative buildings.
We commend EIA consultants Baird and Associates for their report, which in our opinion appears to be methodical, objective and thorough. In other words, the report contains just the kind of information that Cayman’s leaders, and Cayman’s people, require in order to make the best decisions for the common good of our country.
At this time, the Editorial Board has not arrived at a determination of whether or not Cayman should pursue the construction of cruise piers in George Town — or, if so, where cruise berthing should rank, in terms of priority and urgency, on the list of major capital projects, including Owen Roberts International Airport and the George Town Landfill.
Our conclusions will become clearer as more information, such as that contained in the EIA, becomes available — particularly in regard to hard financial numbers, specifically, how Cayman officials plan to pay for the project under the restrictions of the U.K.’s Framework for Fiscal Responsibility and what our country can expect to receive in return. No project as significant as cruise berthing will be free from negative consequences. The ultimate question will be: “Is it worth it?”