By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The promised Environmental Planning and Protection Bill was yesterday slammed as “an empty and vacuous promise” by Save the Bays’ legal director, who argued it could have prevented the current landfill inferno if implemented earlier.
Fred Smith QC, the Callenders & Co attorney partner, told Tribune Business he had little faith the Government was serious about greater environmental protection given the timing of the Bill’s unveiling.
The draft Bill, unveiled by Kenred Dorsett, minister of the environment and housing, last week, comes as the Christie administration enters the final months of its five-year term in office.
For that reason, Mr Smith described the Bill, which would create a Department of Environmental Planning and Protection (DEPP), as “a political sleight of hand designed to attract the environmental vote” to the Government’s side in the upcoming election.
Questioning why the Christie administration had waited so long before moving on greater environmental regulation and enforcement, the outspoken attorney suggested its earlier enactment could have prevented the ongoing crisis surrounding the New Providence landfill.
He urged impacted Nassau residents to initiate both civil and criminal actions for “damage and negligence” by the Government and Department of Environmental Health Services (DEHS), the landfill’s manager, due to the impact on their health and quality of life.
“I think that it is an empty and vacuous promise being made on the eve of a general election to try and give some credibility to a series of government administrations that have, for decades, failed to protect the Bahamian environment, both for human beings and nature, on land, air and sea,” Mr Smith told Tribune Business.
“It is an insult, and the height of hypocrisy, to present the fourth version of an Environmental Protection Bill on the eve of a general election, when Save the Bays, reEarth, Responsible Development for Abaco, Save Guana Cay Reef and other environmental NGOs have for decades called on successive governments to pass legislation and properly fund the Department of Physical Planning.”
Taken at face value, the creation of a DEPP represents a significant upgrade over the Bahamas Environment, Science and Technology Commission (BEST), which is supposed to act as the primary environmental regulator.
However, BEST has no statutory basis in law and, as a result, has no enforcement or regulatory teeth to impose decisions on developers and businesses negatively impacting the environment. It can only advise, and make recommendations to, the Government on environmental matters.
Mr Dorsett, though, last week said the DEPP would be the exact opposite of BEST, its existence underpinned by statute law, thereby giving it enforcement “teeth”.
However, Mr Smith argued that successive governments, including the current Christie administration, had frequently sought to bypass the Bahamas’ existing environmental laws and processes via “executive diktat” - particularly the Heads of Agreements entered into with numerous developers.
“So I have no faith in this vacuous promise, which I think is a sleight of political hand to attract the environmental vote in favour of the current administration,” he told Tribune Business.
“This promise of an environmental Bill rings hollow, especially in the wake of a Freedom of Information Act, which has yet to be debated in the Senate or brought into effect. Again empty, vacuous promises.
“I have no faith in the Minister’s sudden epiphany in the environment through the announcement of this Bill.”
Arguing that the Christie administration was ‘late again’, Mr Smith said had an Environmental Protection Bill been passed at the beginning of its term in office, the current blaze at the New Providence landfill - and associated impacts - may have been prevented.
“The toxins and poisons belching from the dump today could have been avoided if, five years ago, the Government had legislated an Environmental Protection Act and got rid of BEST,” he told Tribune Business, “setting up an environmental agency that was not a toothless tiger like we’ve had for so many decades.
“What is happening at the landfill could have been prevented many years ago, and I don’t understand why people in Nassau don’t sue civilly for damage and negligence, and bring private prosecutions for negligence resulting in damage to their health.”
Mr Smith said “the big problem in the Bahamas was that while Parliament frequently passed laws that were sound in principle, “there is not the willpower” to execute, implement and enforce them properly.
Laws and regulatory agencies often suffered from a lack of funding, impeding the execution of their responsibilities, while some legislation was enforced “selectively or when it is politically expedient”.
Mr Smith pointed to the Planning and Subdivisions Act as an example where the regulatory agency, the Department of Physical Planning, lacked the necessary funding and resources to effectively carry out its mandate.
He also opposed any move to transform BEST into the DEPP, on the grounds that the former had never functioned as an “independent regulator”. Mr Smith argued that the DEPP should be built anew, so that it did not inherit BEST’s traditions.