By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
BAHAMIAN flats/bonefishing advocates yesterday called for the $5.5 billion Oban Energies project to be relocated, warning: “We don’t want to find out” the impacts if it goes wrong.
Justin Lewis, the Bahamas’ manager for the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, told Tribune Business that the controversial project threatens a key location for an industry that generates an annual $141 million annual impact for this nation’s economy.
Mr Lewis, a Freeport and Grand Bahama native, said the oil refinery/storage terminal was currently earmarked for a site situated between two major bonefish spawning grounds.
He added that in a “worst case scenario”, dredging silt or accidental oil spills could wipe out an “entire population of fish” in an area of the Bahamas that is especially popular for bonefishing.
Arguing that the sector “doesn’t want to find out” the consequences of an environmental accident at Oban Energies, Mr Lewis suggested the Bahamas was potentially endangering its “most valuable resource” - the ocean. “We are advising that the Government look at different options for this project, specifically at different locations,” he told Tribune Business. “Just not at that spot. “From my sources, and because I’m from Freeport and have been out there and taken a look around, it’s [the Oban facility] going to be a mile or two miles east of Statoil.”
Mr Lewis’s suspicions tally with what Tribune Business was told in November 2017 by Oban’s non-executive chairman, Peter Krieger. He, too, said the development will be based within one to two miles of east Grand Bahama’s existing Statoil terminal.
“It’s already a bonefish spawning and migrating range,” he told Tribune Business of the area. “It’s a really important home range area for bonefish, as they have really small home ranges. If something happens, a whole population will be displaced.
“Any dredging, oil spills, that spot is right between two major spawning-aggregation sites. The worst case scenario is we lose a whole local population of fish; a whole spawning population of fish.”
Mr Lewis’s comments come just as Dr Hubert Minnis, the Prime Minister, is today expected to address the House of Assembly on the Oban Energies deal as part of the mid-year Budget debate.
The environmental aspects of the Government’s Heads of Agreement with Oban Energies have already come under fire, after it was revealed that an unfavourable Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) will not lead to the project’s termination or relocation.
Instead, the agreement seems to commit the Government to work with the developer to mitigate and address all deficiencies, while the sanctions for any environmental infractions by Oban Energies appear to be capped at $3.5 million.
“We don’t want to know, and we don’t want to find out,” said Mr Lewis on the potential environmental impact. “Our most valuable resource in the Bahamas is the ocean, right? Is it really necessary to have something that will negatively impact the environment no matter where it’s put?”
The Bonefish & Tarpon Trust conducted a 2010 study that showed flats fishing contributes $141 million annually to the Bahamian economy, and Mr Lewis said many guides and fishermen regularly use the area that will be impacted should the Oban Energies project proceed.
Pointing to coral reefs and other nearby environmental attractions, he added that the refinery/storage terminal’s location was “probably not more than 10 miles away” from east Grand Bahama’s Marine Protected Area (MPA) and “probably not another 10 miles away” from the Lucayan National Park.
“The Lucayan National Park is probably the most visited national park in the Bahamas,” Mr Lewis told Tribune Business. “As well, there’s pre-spawning aggregate sites for bonefish in the Lucayan National Park and east Grand Bahama Marine Protected Area.”
The Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, which works to conserve bonefish and their habitats throughout the Caribbean and Central America, set out its concerns over the Oban Energies project in a March 6, 2018, letter to the Prime Minister.
Describing flats fishing as “a valuable, sustainable natural resource that benefits thousands of Bahamians, especially in rural communities”, Mr Lewis wrote on its behalf that Grand Bahama has an “expansive, healthy flats fishing habitat and thriving recreational bonefish industry.”
He warned, though, that the sector and surrounding environment faced “a significant threat” from activities such as dredging, sand mining and other industrial uses.
“We received the news of the recently-announced Oban Energies development in east Grand Bahama with great interest due to its potential impacts to the flats, coral reefs and deep ocean - our most valuable natural resources - not only in that area, but along the entire southern and eastern end of Grand Bahama,” Mr Lewis said.
He added that the “significant dredging” required to give tankers access to Oban’s docks and jetties would pose risks to the marine environment and water aquifers, and called for “closer scrutiny” of the refinery’s proposed production of 250,000 crude oil barrels per day.
“Heavy crude oil is similar to bitumen, which comes from the oil sands of Canada, and has caused significant environmental issues there,” Mr Lewis warned Dr Hubert Minnis. “Heavy crude emits three times’ as much carbon dioxide as regular crude oil and even coal, and contains large quantities of heavy metal contaminants and sulfur.”
He added that the silt from dredging would likely be carried by “prevailing winds and currents” to the beaches, flats and coral reefs along the southern and eastern Grand Bahama shores, with the Lucayan and Northside-Gap National Parks and east Grand Bahama Marine Protected Area “directly in harm’s way”.
Mr Lewis urged the Government to use “the greatest care” in assessing the Oban Energies project, and called on the EIA to account for the potential negative impacts on east Grand Bahama’s tourism industry and flats fishery sector.