Mitigation expensive and likely ineffective, warns DoE director
The environmental consequences of proceeding with the cruise berthing project will still be “extremely dire” even if mitigation measures are deployed, the director of the Cayman Islands Department of Environment has warned.
Gina Ebanks-Petrie cautioned that too much emphasis was being put on the potential for mitigation options to reduce the damage to coral reef habitat as outlined in an environmental impact assessment.
“The pro-port side seems to take comfort from these mitigation options, but what is being missed, or glossed over, is that the environmental study also assesses the effect of those measures and the consultants judge that they will have little or no effect on reducing the severity of the impacts,” she said.
She warned that the measures proposed, including the use of silt screens and the relocation of some coral reefs, would come with a “significant price tag” and would not make a substantial difference, according to the consultant’s report.
“The public and decision makers need to remember that ‘mitigation’ of an impact does not equal complete removal of the impact, and they should focus on the severity of the predicted residual impact,” she said.
Her comments, in an interview with a public relations company working on behalf of the Save Cayman anti-port campaign group, immediately drew criticism from pro-port advocates.
Chris Kirkconnell, one of the key figures in the Cayman’s Port, Cayman’s Future campaign group, said it was inappropriate for Ms. Ebanks-Petrie, as a public servant, to make comments through a firm hired or organized by a private lobby group.
He said she had been involved with the entire process as chair of the Environmental Assessment Board and a member of the National Conservation Council and had plenty of opportunity to comment through those forums. He suggested the director had shown a lack of objectivity in the press release and in relation to the port project in general.
Ms. Ebanks-Petrie said she had simply responded to an interview request. She confirmed she was quoted accurately in the release and said she, and the Department of Environment, had been open and transparent throughout the whole process.
“Part of my job is to advocate for the protection of the environment. I am not making anything up, I’m speaking about the results of the environmental impact assessment,” she told the Compass.
She said her concerns were directly focused on the findings of the environmental impact assessment in relation to the removal of reefs and the residual impact of the project on adjacent reefs and water quality in the harbor.
“I am, and remain, extremely concerned that certain groups appear to be latching on to the idea of mitigation as if somehow that will mean there is not going to be a significant impact from this project,” she said.
She added that she was concerned that the findings of the report itself risked being lost amid the commentary of rival campaign groups.
She said the consultant’s scoring system, in the environmental impact assessment, showed serious residual impacts would remain, even after costly mitigation measurers were put in place.
“For example, the consultants score the impact of dredging on water quality in George Town harbor as a Significant Negative Impact (-D) and this remains a Significant Negative impact (-D) after the application of the recommended mitigation measure – the installation of silt curtains,” she said in the original press release.
She added that the consultants classify the destruction of coral reef during dredging in the highest tier of negative impacts – a Major Negative Impact (-E). Following implementation of the recommended mitigation measure – the coral relocation program – it is still classified as a Significant Negative Impact (-D).
“The resulting situation is still extremely dire, and this seems to be lost in the sound bites being heard in the news,” she said.
She added that the Department of Environment was conscious of the contribution of cruise tourism to the economy and the need to improve the experience of visitors.
“However, after careful consideration of the environmental losses and the risk to the overall tourism product associated with berthing facilities, our view is that a scheme of appropriate land side enhancements would offer the best solution.”
Ms. Ebanks-Petrie told the public relations company that, given the projected cost of the project, it is critical that the predicted economic benefits of the berthing facility are based on real data and factual information and that the economic business case does not rely on assumptions, speculation and the opinions of those directly involved in the cruise tourism industry.
She added, “From where I sit, the economic business case does not appear to have been held to the same standard of actual data collection and robust analysis and scrutiny as the environmental impact assessment. I see this as a significant problem for decision-makers.”