A month after the publication of a $2.5 million environmental impact assessment of the proposed port project — with the report detailing negative consequences such as damaged and destroyed coral habitat, as well as the loss and degradation of manmade dive sites — Cayman Islands officials have hired a new set of consultants, at a purported cost of US$27,000, to scrutinize the seabed in George Town Harbour for a second time.
The circumstances are somewhat notable (fishy, perhaps?), considering that, whereas this government administration has loudly trumpeted each previous incremental step in the cruise berthing process, the public only learned about this new study by following the marl road to government’s back door. So much for tendering; so much for transparency.
The more cynical among us may even suspect that, à la the infamously “sanitized” report on behavior in Cayman public schools, government officials were trying to sneak in a do-over because the original EIA document said things they didn’t like, or didn’t want others to hear.
Meanwhile, the opponents to the cruise port have undertaken their own research effort, sending divers and cameras down to explore the areas that might be impacted by the proposed piers.
We have a problem with the way both groups are pursuing the cruise berthing discussion. Their approach is, in a word, too “one-dimensional.” Before Cayman invests additional time and resources into scouring the seabed and tallying up each coral colony, sponge, shark, turtle and lionfish, we should be utilizing the vast data already compiled to contemplate the downtown cruise project in a much broader context.
For example, building the cruise piers is expected to result in the annual arrival of some 2.3 million cruise visitors (compared to 1.6 million in 2014, or the record 1.9 million in 2006).
How will Grand Cayman (and our roads and tourist facilities) efficiently manage all of those visitors, especially since officials have shown no indication of pursuing the significant upgrades to related infrastructure that have been recommended by consultants?
What impact will the influx of cruise passengers have on the future development of downtown George Town, or on the behavior of our steadily-growing stay-over tourist population?
Most fundamentally, how do our officials expect to pay for the $150 million-plus capital project, without wholly dedicating existing revenue streams from taxes on arriving cruise passengers, and without creating premium upland development reserved for the benefit of the private sector partner?
In regard to this extremely important issue of cruise berthing, Compass reporters are being bombarded with strident sounds emanating from all megaphones. However, at this point neither side, pro or con, has presented a full, nuanced argument that considers all factors at play. (This is understandable, as each side is arguing to “win,” not necessarily to inform.)
The cruise dock is a hugely significant decision that should not be made by virtue of one group yelling at another.
Missing from this debate are reasonably objective voices of rationality. Where are Minister of Environment Wayne Panton, Director of the Department of Environment Gina Ebanks-Petrie, or even the much-ballyhooed National Conservation Council? What do they think about the EIA and the new parallel study?
The Cayman Islands Tourism Association on Thursday finally made its opinion of the proposal known when it released a statement saying it did not “at this time” support the cruise berthing facilities plan, following input from its members and a review of the environmental impact assessment and outlined business case.
There is no doubt that a massive cruise berthing facility will affect the marine environment in George Town Harbour and negatively impact businesses that depend on that body of water and the reefs and shipwrecks it contains.
However, that, to us, is only one factor in a wide-ranging conversation that Cayman should be having on the cruise dock, but which — although the idea has been on the table for several decades — we have not yet even come close to conducting.
Our minds, and our pages, are open for the debate.