JET insists on public knowing about threats to health
THE Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) believes that regulatory authorities faltered when they did not inform the public of the leak at a red mud pond, a section of a plant run by bauxite and alumina company Jamalco in Hayes, Clarendon.
Following a Jamaica Observer probe, Jamalco revealed just last week that the leak, containing hazardous caustic soda, was detected in 2021 and had been contained.
The company said a permanent repair solution is being designed as it eyes an early 2024 date for completion of repairs.
“When we talk about issues related to transparency, it has a lot to do with proactively disclosing environmental information, [as in] not having to find out maybe after the fact, or find out from a person that is making a complaint because they’re concerned with something that they’re observing. The regulatory authorities should be proactive in releasing this kind of environmental pollution incident data,” Dr Theresa Rodriques Moodie, CEO of JET, told the Sunday Observer.
Though Jamalco described the leak as “minor”, Moodie is adamant that it shouldn’t be a sweep-under-the-rug approach.
“If there is a potential for a negative impact on public health… on the environment, it is important for people to know proactively. I say proactively because, oftentimes, you can only get this environmental information if you make an ATI [Access to Information] request — and you know how that works. If I put in an ATI request today, that’s 30 days before they could respond to me — and they may not respond to me.”
The leak was reported to have been detected before the devastating August 22, 2021 fire that cost Jamalco estimated losses of US$500,000 per day as at September 2021.
Sunday Observer sources had said that the red mud pond developed the leak after “the liner broke”. That, the sources claimed, allowed untreated caustic soda waste to leak through the lining at the bottom of the pond and into the groundwater system.
Moodie told the Sunday Observer that matters involving the environment invariably affect people, and as such should not be hidden from the public.
“When we are talking about people’s lives and their health, and not just the environment, we have to be proactive. We have to be better at doing environmental management, monitoring and enforcement. It is one thing to have the laws but if we are not monitoring and enforcing, it is another issue,” she lamented.
Moodie stressed that a situation like this shouldn’t be discovered through media agencies or requests for ATIs, which queries, she added, are oftentimes not fruitful.
“Oftentimes, you are not responded to. You have to do a request for internal review, and then that’s another 30 days. And then sometimes you have to do an appeal, and how many people were going to do that? I strongly believe that this is something that Jamaica needs to be moving towards. And in fact, Jamaica is a signatory to the Escazú Agreement, which speaks about this kind of issue — transparency with environmental information — but we’ve not yet ratified it,” she said.
The Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, better known as the Escazú Agreement, is an international treaty signed by 25 Latin American and Caribbean nations concerning the right of access to information about the environment; public participation in environmental decision-making; environmental justice; and a healthy and sustainable environment for current and future generations.
The agreement is open to 33 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Of the 25 signatories, it has been ratified by 14: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, and Uruguay.
“And if you don’t ratify it [then] there’s nothing that requires the country to do this. But we need to be proactive about this because we have a right to a healthy environment, and it is in our constitution. We have a right to this kind of environmental information,” Moodie insisted.
Sunday Observer sources said last week that since the detection of the leak there have been several suggestions as to how to repair it, but they all require investments amounting to millions of US dollars.
One suggestion, which could result in an environmental catastrophe, is for the installation of a pipeline along the rail to pump the water into the sea.
The sources also said that the water in the pond is more than it was built to accommodate. To prevent an overflow Jamalco has constructed a gabion basket, but sources have said that the bottom of the basket is always wet — signalling a leak.
Asked if Jamalco has ever had to deal with other leaks, the company’s Managing Director Austin Mooney said one was identified in the past, “and a similar approach of containment and management strategy was used to address the problem until it was successfully repaired, without any impact to the environment”.