Less than one percent of projects referred to the National Conservation Council were required to go through environmental impact assessments in the past 18 months, according to the council’s annual report.
Of the 668 projects, including multiple new hotel projects referred to the council, the report says the council only requested EIAs on six projects.
The majority of those were government road projects affecting large areas of natural habitat, according to Department of Environment director Gina Ebanks-Petrie.
Only one was for a private developer – Dart company Crymble Landholding’s application to remove beach rock from the shallow coastal waters off Seven Mile Beach.
Christina Pineda, a member of the National Conservation Council, speaking at its quarterly meeting last week, said the statistics showed that the council did not request such assessments lightly.
She said the perception that the council was holding up development did not fit with the reality.
The council’s annual report, which covers an 18-month budget period, indicates that the EIA process has helped the Cayman Islands recover from a “weak” rating on environmental governance and meet obligations under various international environmental treaties.
Ms. Ebanks-Petrie told the Cayman Compass in an interview that the council only required an EIA when it did not have the information to make a recommendation on a project without further study.
She said the record showed this was a tool that was used judiciously. She added that the EIA did not determine whether a project could proceed. It merely informs the Department of Environment’s recommendation.
Planned projects required to go through EIAs in the past 18 months included, two “farm roads” in North Side, the planned expansion to the East-West Arterial highway, and a new “spine road” in Little Cayman.
Ms. Ebanks-Petrie said, “Those roads, both in Grand Cayman and Little Cayman, were being proposed through primary habitat in areas where there was potential for direct impacts.”
With the East-West Arterial, she said, there were serious concerns around flooding that would need to be investigated and mitigated.
“There was a lot of scope for severe impacts as a result of flooding,” she said.
During discussions at the council meeting last week, members also appeared to be in the dark about proposals to review the National Conservation Law. Premier Alden McLaughlin highlighted concerns about the EIA process when he announced plans for a review committee to be established last year.
Attempting to answer questions from council members on the review, Ms. Ebanks-Petrie said she believed government was still in the process of establishing the review committee.
Speaking to the Compass later, she said any perception that the EIA process was a barrier to development did not hold up to scrutiny.
“I haven’t seen any document on what the issues are with the law. That seems to be one of [the concerns] but if you look at the evidence subjectively, you have to conclude that is not the case.”
She said recent articles in the Compass showed that the property market was booming and that more projects than ever were being cleared for approval.
“I think it would be hard to make an argument that the allegation [that EIAs hold up development] is supported by the evidence.”
Despite those booming development statistics, there does appear to be evidence that at least one project was impacted by the EIA requirement.
Speaking before the Central Planning Authority at a recent meeting, Jackie Doak, president of Dart Realty, suggested the requirement for an EIA on its plan to move beach rock from the coastal waters off Seven Mile Beach had been a factor in its decision to switch locations for its planned five-star hotel.
Ms. Ebanks-Petrie said additional information was necessary for this project, because of its potential impacts on the beach.
“It wasn’t that we objected to the development. We objected to the removal of beach rock if it was going to have a negative impact on the shoreline,” she said.
She added that removing beach rock could have impacted the coastline north and south of Dart’s property, and the range of potential impacts needed to be properly identified and quantified before a recommendation could be made.
The National Conservation Council remains two members short and without a chairperson since the resignation of Christine Rose-Smyth in late 2017. It is up to Cabinet to appoint new members for Bodden Town and for North Side and to designate a chairperson.