By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
TOURISM Minister Obie Wilchcombe, Bimini MP, said he is not aware of any environmental degradation that will result from the dredging of the seabed around North Bimini.
His comment comes despite an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) initiated by Resorts World Bimini which found that the negative ecological impacts of the Bimini project “will be extremely high”.
Speaking to The Tribune, Mr Wilchcombe defended the government’s decision to let foreign developers dredge the seabed around North Bimini despite the concerns of environmentalists and other residents who say the project has been shrouded in secrecy and that residents have not been consulted in accordance with various laws.
Mr Wilchcombe said: “I believe that the Department of Environment, the ministry responsible, I believe that all the ministries, and the prime minister in particular is equally as concerned as I am about maintaining the quaintness of Bimini, maintaining the natural beauty, and ensuring that there is no degradation. And I have not been told that we are about to face any.
“Questions were raised about Arawak Cay, questions were raised about Saunders Beach, there’s always questions. But you have to understand that in our country there’s never been any case brought other than in Freeport about degradation of land or destruction of our water means.
“So we’ve had issues, but at the end of the day I think that generally we’ve been a country that’s been respectful, that generally we’ve been a country that adheres to the rules and regulations and general, good practices of the global community.”
Nonetheless, an executive summary of the EIA – which was prepared by Nassau-based Blue Engineering and included several external expert analyses – revealed that a number of highly likely, negative consequences will result from the project.
In terms of negative impacts on Bimini’s environment, the summary said they include “adverse impacts on the very aspects of Bimini that make it attractive to visitors”. It said: “Impacts to marine water quality from the construction and operation of the proposed project could be long term and extend beyond the property”; “impacts on existing and future fishing and fisheries exploitation are expected to be high”; “impacts to marine life from the deterioration of water quality are expected to be high, indirect and long term in duration”; “project will result in a negative impact to water supply, solid waste, electricity and telecommunication infrastructure”; “impacts to commercially important species and habitats are expected to be high, indirect in nature and long term.”
Mr Wilchcombe’s comments might inflame environmentalists, some of whom told The Tribune yesterday that they prove why residents should have been properly consulted before the government sanctioned the project.
On Sunday, Fred Smith, attorney for the environmental Save Bimini Association, said his organisation will sue the government for failing to act in accordance with legislative statutes demanding that residents be consulted before such projects are initiated.
Mr Wilchcombe, however, said yesterday that his government has not permitted the development to happen in contravention of any law.
“In fact, we’ve asked the question of our legal team,” he said. “But, of course, we have the Attorney General’s office that will be addressing any of those concerns. We can’t ignore what (the environmentalists) say but at the same time we have to proceed with development and growth because on the one hand we have to use the assets given to us by God to cause for the economic growth and development of our people.”
Mr Wilchcombe said he is confident most Bimini residents support the project.
“You’re elected by the people of Bimini and at the end of the day this has been a project that started in 1999 and the former administration went and got support for the project. We’re not going to please everyone, but generally I think the people are aware and understand.
“The developers themselves have met with the people. We didn’t even go to the meetings, we let them go and meet with the people, let the people ask them questions and I think the various departments have had meetings from time to time and they continue to do so, but again, no matter what you do, you have to ensure that it is done right.
“We generally believe that there is support in the country. We generally believe that the people of Bimini support it and we know that the people of Bimini want a day when they could say here goes a development where they could see some sustainability, where they could see now there’s a new hotel, now a new casino, we’re seeing now new night flights, we believe the challenge for the Bahamas has to be causing each island to have sustainability.
“What you’re seeing now is people returning to the islands as opposed to crowding Nassau and Grand Bahama. Because when you crowd these states, these islands, you have to appreciate the pressure you bring to these islands and economic sustainability has to be a part of the plans so people would return to their islands. Right now you have some 500, 600 people who went back to Bimini.
“The plan is to ensure each island has self-sustainability but in accordance with best standards, practices and accordance with the environmental procedures that ensure orderly growth and development.”
Nonetheless, Mr Wilchcombe said he is advocating for a tribunal to be established to address environmental concerns associated with such developments.
“I’ve advocated that we need to have in place an Inventory Tribunal where all developments can be subjected to and that tribunal can look at all concerns of the environment prior to the start of a project and give those opponents to any project 30 days in which to respond before proceeding,” he said.
“That takes away the difficulty so if we could find a way to do that, that would help us out because the more you grow, the more you develop and when you have a country like ours, a part of our growth and development is foreign direct investment. Foreign Direct Investment will require development in most cases so you have to understand that particularly when you go to some of these quaint islands and all the rest.”