EDITORIAL – When government despoils Cayman’s precious wetlands

To environmentalists and conservationists alike, there is no mission more sacred than protecting tropical wetlands, the incubator and habitat of many forms of life itself. We in Cayman need look no farther than out of our airplane windows to view the vast Everglades National Park as our pilots navigate their way toward South Florida Airports.

For decades, an intense battle has been ongoing in Florida between environmentalists and ecologists on the one hand, developers and Tallahassee politicians on the other. To date, about 50 percent of the “River of Grass” has been replaced with the fruits of human encroachment, one housing development or shopping center at a time.

And so, even the editorial board of this newspaper – which, let’s face it, is more pro-growth than many of our conservationist readers might prefer – let out a collective gasp when we learned that the National Roads Authority has been unceremoniously dumping toxic sludge from stormwater wells directly into these environmentally fragile areas.

As the Compass reported on Tuesday, tests of sites the NRA has used for dumping stormwater-well effluent have revealed the presence of the known carcinogen Benzo(a)pyrene, as well as other potentially harmful “semi-volatile organics.” The authority ordered the testing after a Cayman 27 reporter filmed an NRA truck unloading wastewater, sand and sludge in a wetlands area last June – a practice in direct contravention of Water Authority Law.

It is unknown just how long the NRA has been so despoiling our wetland areas. The reason it is unknown is that no one will tell: Neither the NRA, nor the Department of Environmental Health nor the Water Authority responded to a reporter’s inquiries about the arrangement, as of our press deadline Tuesday afternoon.*

According to the Water Authority board meeting minutes reviewed by the Compass, the authority stopped accepting the well effluent at the wastewater treatment works back in 2007. After that, the Department of Environmental Health granted – and then rescinded – permission for the effluent’s disposal at the George Town landfill, at which time the roads authority presumably began the practice of pumping the waste directly into various “disposal sites.”

If you identify yourself as a “conservationist” – as many of our readers do – then you must also identify this practice for what it is: environmental heresy.

Was the Department of Environment consulted or, less formally, made aware of this illegal dumping? If so, did the protectors of Cayman’s natural wonders (up to, and including, beach rock) sign off on using wetlands as a dumping ground for the dirty water, sand and concrete, automotive fluids, bits of detritus and whatever else makes up the miasma that washes down our roadside drains?

This seems a good time to pause to reflect on the tangled and conflicted nature of Cayman’s overabundance of authorities and departments. With their overlapping responsibilities (not to mention their platoons of public employees), one would think that someone at the DoE, DEH or the Water Authority would have grown wise to this unacceptable practice.

This lack of direct accountability makes a mockery of Cayman’s so-called environmental protections. Nor is there any sign that officials have recognized the scope and magnitude of their fundamental failure.

Indeed, contained within the Water Authority’s meeting minutes was a self-congratulatory note about setting a “positive example of various Government agencies working together to find a suitable and responsible solution,” now that the DEH has agreed to again accept the stormwater waste at the landfill (this time, we are told, it will be deposited in a “special trench”).

A “positive example?” Of course, it is just the opposite. The fact is that Cayman’s sprawling bureaucracy stood by, and did nothing – perhaps for more than a decade – as NRA trucks backed up to water’s edge and dumped tons of potentially cancerous effluent into what should be pristine wetland sanctuaries for our waterfowl and other marine life.

The Water Authority’s statement attempts to put a positive spin on a serious environmental breach – one which cannot be minimized by Hallmark-greeting-card platitudes of inter-departmental love.

Editor’s Note: In Wednesday’s editorial (“When government despoils Cayman’s precious wetlands”), we asked how long the National Roads Authority had been dumping stormwater-well effluent into wetland areas. Shortly after our press deadline, the Compass received information from the Water Authority indicating that it has been the practice since 2010 or 2011.