A judge will deliver her ruling on Monday on whether millions of genetically modified mosquitoes can be released in West Bay.
At a Grand Court court hearing Tuesday, presided over by Judge Ingrid Mangatal, Solicitor General Jacqueline Wilson contended that the application for a judicial review of the National Conservation Council’s decision to permit the mosquito release was brought on the “flimsiest of grounds.”
Lawyers for applicant Dwene Ebanks had argued earlier in the day that the council erred when it failed to carry out a “proper risk assessment” and or an appropriate public consultation process before granting the Mosquito Research and Control Unit a permit for the mosquito project.
The permit to import mosquito eggs and breed and release adult male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes was issued by the Department of the Environment — the co-respondent in the case — after the National Conservation Council made its decision on May 18.
The project, a collaboration between the Mosquito Research and Control Unit and U.K. biotechnology company Oxitec, was scheduled to begin last week, but last-minute applications for a stay and judicial review halted the mosquito-release operation.
The purpose of the judicial review is not to assess the risks and benefits of the GM technology but to examine the decision-making process of the National Conservation Council and whether it acted within the scope of its powers. Ms. Wilson told Judge Mangatal that it “seems as if [the applicants] did not avail themselves” of the opportunity to bring their complaint to court until the project was ready to launch, in an effort to stop the project.”
She submitted that the application for judicial review lacked any “cogent evidence” and was “entirely without merit and should be dismissed.”
Stephen Tromans, QC, part of the legal team representing Mr. Ebanks, who leads a group opposed to the mosquito project, argued that the National Conservation Council’s decision was flawed, in part, because it had relied on an October 2009 risk assessment conducted by Oxitec and the MRCU. He said there should have been a more recent, independent and extensive risk assessment.
Mr. Tromans also argued that the decision-making process was not fully transparent and could have been influenced by the fact that the government had already entered into a partnership agreement with Oxitec before the application for the permit had even been filed.
Human rights lawyer Deok Joo Rhee, another member of the applicant’s legal team, said the matter was an “important constitutional case” for Cayman. She argued that the constitution requires authorities such as the National Conservation Council to consider environmental impacts and adopt measures to protect the environment, and that the council failed to do so in this case.
In a press statement Wednesday, Ms. Wilson said the respondents’ evidence showed that the potential risk of the project “was a matter of grave concern to the NCC” and that the council “conducted its own independent assessment of that risk,” an assessment which involved reviewing reports made by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization.
Ms. Wilson said the council also took steps to confirm whether the findings in the 2009 risk assessment were supported by subsequent, more recent, assessments made by other countries.
In court, Ms. Wilson also argued that the National Conservation Council considered the engagement and public consultation process as important for this project and that there was “no shortage” of information concerning the project in the public domain.
“In granting approval for the project, the NCC also required the MRCU to continue public outreach efforts,” Ms. Wilson said in the statement. “In this regard, the MRCU has embarked on a comprehensive public awareness campaign that involves all stakeholders. This includes press releases, television programs, media appearances and door-to-door visits in which leaflets and other promotional materials are distributed and answers are given to any questions.”
Ms. Wilson also said the National Conservation Council proceeded with the “required degree of transparency” by keeping its general meeting – at which the decision was made – public, and giving notice of the meeting to local media and on the Department of Environment’s website in advance.
She said that the applicant’s “insinuation that there is a vested interest by the MRCU in its partnership with Oxitec was robustly denied by the MRCU.”
“The MRCU confirmed that its interest in partnering with Oxitec is purely scientific and that the project would not be pursued if there was compelling scientific evidence that it poses a risk to human health or the environment,” Ms. Wilson added.
Both sides finished their arguments late Tuesday afternoon.
Judge Mangatal is scheduled to announce her decision in court at 10 a.m. on Monday.