Port project objections raised at North Side meeting

Ezzard Miller, left, speaks during a meeting organized by members of the Opposition to address concerns about the George Town port project. The meeting was held Tuesday night at the North Side Civic Centre. - Photo: Mark Muckenfuss

The first of several public meetings organized by Opposition politicians to address questions on the proposed cruise ship docks for George Town harbor dealt with such questions as the environmental impact of the project, alternatives to the two-dock design, or whether any substantive change is even needed to accommodate cruise passengers.

The project, which is estimated to about $200 million, would require dredging of the harbor to accommodate the draft of a new class of mega cruise ships.

The concept received a hostile reception from about 20 people who attended the first of a series of district meetings Tuesday evening at the North Side Civic Centre. Legislative Assembly members Ezzard Miller and Arden McLean spoke at length on their concerns about the new project. Both said they support a referendum effort that would allow voters to have the final say on the current proposal. Proponents are currently in the process of gathering signatures on a petition to force such a referendum.

Premier Alden McLaughlin and Tourism Minister Moses Kirkconnell, speaking at a public meeting last week, said such a referendum could damage the prospects of moving forward on construction, saying that current companies bidding on the project would likely back out.

“Moses and Alden should be embracing a referendum,” East End representative Mr. McLean said.

He argued that if the government felt it has a strong case, it should be willing to let Caymanians vote on it.

It was not Mr. McLean’s only criticism.

“This government has really made a mess of this process,” he said at one point.

Claiming his own engineering expertise, Mr. McLean proposed that instead of constructing a solid dock, a long pier using pilings would be able to service the larger cruise ships and would not have the environmental impact of the proposed dredging.

Carnival ships Freedom and Horizon, carrying more than 7,700 passengers between them, moor off George Town Wednesday morning. – Photo: Taneos Ramsay

“What I’m suggesting is go out to 40 feet [depth] and then you turn,” he said, noting that as the pier extended at an angle from that point, the water gets deeper. “You don’t need to do any dredging.”

Passengers who were loath to walk what would be a substantial distance, he said, could be served by trams, “like they have at Disney World.”

The concerns about dredging come from the silt the process would produce and how it might affect the surrounding reefs and sea life. Tuesday night’s meeting began with a presentation by Courtney Platt, an underwater photographer and a longtime activist in conserving Cayman’s coral reefs.

Mr. Platt said he is not convinced that silt from the dredging can be contained to a small area. He argued that the silt would likely kill the coral reefs in and on the edges of the harbor, from Devil’s Grotto to Soto’s Reef, some of the most popular spots for tourists experiencing Cayman’s underwater life.

Mitigations on similar projects, he said, have not been successful.

“This would be a massively destructive process,” he said. “The silt would radiate out from the port, regardless of the mitigations.”

He worried that the new port might kill the very environment that brings many people to Cayman in the first place. He presented a slideshow of photos and videos of Soto’s Reef, Eden Rock and the wreck of the Cali, showing brightly colored corals and sponges along with fish and other sea life.

“Everything you see in this slideshow, it’s all going to die if they dredge,” he said.

Mr. Miller argued that the government’s own data does not support the project it is pushing.

“They say if we don’t build this dock and build it soon, the cruise business will be cut in half,” he said. “That’s not what their statistics show.”

Cruise line officials have said as traffic shifts to the larger cruise liners now being built, the smaller ships will see less service, and ports that cannot accommodate the larger vessels will see tourist numbers decline. Mr. Miller said that contradicts numbers showing a steady increase in tourists over the past decade.

He suggested improving the tourist experience by streamlining the transportation off and on ship. He envisions building a departure lounge to handle passport and security checks more efficiently for departing tourists. The current process, which takes place on board the ships, is cumbersome, he said.

Mr. Miller also proposed improving the current cargo dock to accommodate some cruise ships during the day, and said he supported the idea of a pier on pilings.

He questioned the need for increasing the number of cruise visitors, saying Cayman is currently the fourth most popular stopping point for tourists on Caribbean cruise ships.

“Why do we need more?” he asked.

Mario Rankin spoke during the question-and-answer portion of the meeting, also arguing that the island may be maxed out in terms of the number of tourists it can accommodate. He encouraged those at the meeting to back the referendum.

“There’s no other line of defense other than this petition,” he said. “This petition is it.”

Emile Levy drew the only applause of the night after objecting to undue influence on the project by outsiders.

Mr. Levy said he resented “people that have never seen the bottom of Hog Sty Bay coming here and telling us what’s best for us. No to the dock in George Town bay.”