EDITORIAL – Head-on collision: New highway and environmental law

A 10-mile-long highway, considered a vital artery to a major development, is plotted directly through the “ecological heart of Grand Cayman.” On one side are elected leaders who support the project. On the other are appointed officials legally charged with protecting the environment.

What we have here, folks, is a high-stakes game of chicken.

Here’s the situation: As we reported in yesterday’s Compass, Cayman’s government and developer Ironwood are negotiating a partnership to build an extension to the East-West Arterial Highway (from Hirst Road to Frank Sound Road). The biggest cheerleaders for the highway and Ironwood’s planned golf resort have been Premier Alden McLaughlin and Minister Kurt Tibbetts. However, building the highway extension would require bulldozing and paving a 10-mile stretch, including through the environmentally pristine Central Mangrove Wetland.

Accordingly, the National Conservation Council, formed under a law passed (unanimously) by the government in late 2013, has voted (also unanimously) to require an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to be conducted before the highway project can be approved.

Council member Davey Ebanks accurately observed, “It is obvious the intention is to start now with this road. At the other end of the road they have a development that everybody is gung-ho to get done. It is election silly season. If this EIA is being proposed and it takes a year or more, which I think is feasible, I am just wondering how does it all fit together?”

So are we, Mr. Ebanks, so are we.

We can’t say we don’t understand how the National Conservation Law has led to such an impasse. In fact, on this editorial page we explicitly opined to our leaders and our readers it was inevitable. We don’t understand how officials are going to wriggle out of this situation, indeed this confrontation.

We were highly critical of the bill while it was being considered in the Legislative Assembly, despite assurances issued at the time by Environmental Minister Wayne Panton, including the following statement: “The Council itself will not have broad ranging powers to make decisions. It will only give advice, for example, to the Planning Department. That advice must be considered or it can be ignored.”

We admit we’re having trouble squaring Minister Panton’s assertion from 2013 with today’s reality. The Council has just ordered (not advised) an EIA to be done. And while the study will take a year or more complete, we already know what it will indicate: that the highway project will result in the destruction of, or disruption to, scores of life forms protected under the Conservation Law.

For political if not legal reasons, Cabinet lawmakers simply do not have the option of ignoring the Council or the results of such an EIA. If they do, they might as well rip up the Law and disband the Council.

On a broader note, adhering to the Conservation Law not only effectively will kill the East-West Arterial extension, but it also will kill all future new road projects of any significance.

For absence of doubt, the Compass has been “in unalloyed opposition” to the Conservation Bill since its conception. We staunchly support this important highway extension and the Ironwood project. By passing this law, the Progressives government has spawned an unmitigated mess.

That being said, we are fundamentally “pro-Law and Order.” The law, even one as flawed as this legislative abomination, must be obeyed, rewritten or repealed. It cannot be ignored.

Nearly three years ago, we referred to the Conservation Bill as “A turkey filled with stuffing.” Now — Premier McLaughlin, Minister Tibbetts, Minister Panton and Environmental Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie — it’s time to dig in.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. The flaw in this editorial is the type of “us versus them” type thinking that is all too common when dealing with environmental issues. While it is true that a road may have significant environmental impacts, that does not mean that that finding would necessarily negate the possibility of building a road. Using a science-based approach, sensitive areas can be identified and mitigation strategies can be proposed. For instance many countries are successfully incorporating wildlife crossings when building roads. These types of crossings allow safe passage for animals over/under manmade barriers. Such techniques not only reduce the chances of vehicular collisions with wildlife, but can also secondarily reduce human injuries as a result. Environmentalism and commercialism can work together if both sides are committed to making it work. I encourage the editorial board to refrain from fanning the flames of controversy before one actually exists.

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  2. This is not by any means a high-stake game of chicken. This is the government doing their job as intended. Their job is to not only think of the short-term needs of their population, but also plan for the generations ahead. The vast majority of problems with our government (and most governments around the world) are caused by this short-sightedness, amplified by election cycles. And here we are encouraging it!

    The point of the EIA is not to stop this road, but to determine ways to mitigate an impact that will last for many generations. Perhaps we could save an incredible stretch of nature by just moving the road a few hundred feet? Perhaps a pristine place is destroyed that could have provide tourism opportunities for centuries to come? This is all conjecture, but that is the point. Neither the editor nor I know exactly how what the long-term consequences of this project will be, and the only way to find out is to perform an assessment.

    Instead of imagining a war between two factions of our country and dividing our country further, how about we celebrate both and hold our government to a higher standard. We don’t have to choose one or the other; we can balance the needs of economic growth and the importance of our environment. The best way to do this is to pressure our government to act in a timely manner to complete this assessment. The criticism should not be laid on the DOE for trying to do their job, but it should be turned back to the elected officials who did not start this process sooner. This inevitable road has been planned for at least a decade and the groundwork for the EIA should have been started a long time ago. The suggested timeframe of over a year to complete his study is also unacceptable and our elected officials need to work closely with the DOE to try to get this done faster.

    The answer is not to plow ahead blindly with disregard for all consequences. The answer is to hold our government accountable and demand that they solve these issues more proactively and in a more timely manner.

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