The 'Port Report': 'Omission' or 'Commission'?

Imagine going to a bookstore and purchasing a copy of the newest bestseller. You eagerly flip through the pages of the novel. Wait a minute … Where’s Chapter 3? … It’s missing.

It’s in the table of contents, but it’s not in the book. Would you feel shortchanged? We sure would.

Now imagine if the price of that book were $2.5 million, and it was a key component of a decision that could cost $150 million or more, the effects of which would reverberate for generations.

That’s basically what happened with the Cayman Islands government’s recent publication of consultancy reports deriving from the “environmental impact assessment” of the George Town cruise berthing proposal. Although officials released the 425-page “environmental statement,” which focuses on the (primarily negative) effects that construction and operation of the cruise facility may have on the harbor’s marine environment and nearby areas, they purposefully left out a 74-page section (called the “environmental management plan”) that addresses how to mitigate potential damage.

In other words, Cayman’s taxpayers paid $2.5 million for a report, and the government – particularly environmental officials – tried to publish only $2.1 million worth of that report … leaving out the part that deals with protecting the natural environment. The consultants, for example, speak specifically to measures aimed at preserving the integrity of Devil’s Grotto, Eden Rock and Soto’s Reef.

Now, how do you feel?

We know what pro-dock group “Cayman’s Port, Cayman’s Future” thinks about the situation. They laid it out in writing as part of their contribution to the Cayman Compass’s recent special report, “The Dock Debate.”

The group said: “Cayman’s Port, Cayman’s Future is concerned because a large section of the environmental statement has been deliberately withheld and hidden from the public debate, a major deficiency of information necessary to enable well-informed, balanced decisions regarding the environmental dimensions. …

“As so often happens when failure to properly communicate creates a void, the information vacuum that the Environmental Assessment Board has deliberately left vacant, has unfortunately been filled with huge, emotionally charged arguments, with prejudices and misinformation fueling strenuous, passionate efforts to block any further progress on the cruise berthing facility. …

“This lack of transparency has scared countless citizens of the prospects of irreversible damage to our stunningly beautiful underwater creatures and scenery as described in Sections I and Sections II as the worst-case scenario, identified in the published draft environmental statement.”

While the Compass has taken a balanced approach to the cruise dock discussion (as evidenced by the inclusion of both “for” and “against” perspectives in our special report), and we have not yet taken an editorial position on cruise berthing, we stand in unequivocal agreement with the pro-dock group in regard to officials’ failure to release to the public all pertinent information on the project.

When environmental officials, facing pressure from within and without government, finally did release the missing section, they did so on a Friday afternoon – which in Cayman’s media environment is equivalent to the dead of night.

We do not, necessarily, accuse Cayman’s Department of Environment, led by Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie, of deliberately withholding a section of the consultant’s report in order to influence the public’s perception of the cruise project (i.e., by including all of the “bad news” and none of the “good news”) – but that has been the actual consequence.

At minimum, environmental officials’ withholding of the section has left the government open to allegations of manipulation and opaqueness, ironically, amidst a public consultation process intended to ensure accountability and transparency.

Experience has instructed us, and Cayman’s government has illustrated time and time again, that the surest way to botch a consultant’s report is to delay, “manage” or suppress its release.

The cruise berthing project is far too expensive, and its environmental and economic ramifications far too great, for these kinds of errors in judgment to occur, whether through intentionality or ineptitude.