By DENISE MAYCOCK
Tribune Staff Reporter
and RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
RESIDENTS of Grand Bahama took centre stage during a key town hall meeting for the Oban Energies refinery last night, with some expressing concern about the environmental impact of the $5.5 billion project and bitterness that consultation was not engaged with them before the Heads of Agreement was signed.
The reaction was not entirely negative, however, as some cheered the project and the jobs it is predicted to bring.
The packed event was the first time the residents publicly weighed in on a project that has dominated headlines in the last month, raised questions about the government’s due diligence efforts and prompted Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis this week to admit mistakes were made and that a comprehensive review is on the way.
Oban Energies President Satpal Dhunna represented the company at the event, revealing he is a shareholder in the company.
He claimed the company has spent $10 million so far on the project, mostly to nail down the best location.
Almost a month after Oban Energies’ website was wiped of revelations of the dubious past of its management team, he said the new management structure will be revealed in the coming days.
He said once people see their “experience in the energy sector,” no fears about their capability will persist.
He hurried away at the conclusion of the event before the press could ask him further questions, however, citing a technical meeting he needed to attend elsewhere on the island even though it was nearly 9pm.
Nonetheless, a particular anger for people like Andrea Thompson, a resident there for 45 years, was the potential impact an oil refinery could have on people’s health.
“I am totally upset over what’s happening and I think a lot of people are being spoon-fed stuff they don’t understand,” she said. “All of us are intelligent people. We can go online and look at things. Pull up oil refineries and health problems. Proven cancer; proven asthma; proven children that are born with birth defects. So don’t tell me there is not going to be smog that is going to be moving across our island. That is nonsense; it is going to happen.”
Addressing recent controversies involving Oban personnel, she said: “I have the court case from the State of Florida where Mr Krieger was indicted for taking money. I have the papers from Florida showing that you have been removed from management and you have your address the same as Mr Krieger’s and the new management team so it’s a bunch of malarkey, you’re tricking all these people.”
One man urged stakeholders to recognize East Grand Bahama residents are not “haphazard people”.
“Treat us like human beings,” he said. “If there is a meeting, give us ample time to know there is a meeting in East Grand Bahama for the people of East Grand Bahama. Everybody coming and make decisions (for us); we need to make our own decisions whether we want it, yes or no; so we say to you, we may support it, but we need more information, more time…”
Before last year’s election, Dr Minnis pledged to consult residents before such projects are pushed. Mr Dhunna said yesterday there was an “intent and a purpose” behind the lack of consultation with East Grand Bahama residents.
“I’m aware we have not discussed this project in great detail with the community,” he said. “I’m not shying away from that. There was an intent and a purpose behind it. We didn’t want to come here and discuss a project that was not tangible and real and we were not committed to. We wanted to ensure we had first and foremost a commitment from the government and from our shareholders.”
However, Justin Lewis, Bahamas Initiative Manager for Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, said he is concerned about the effect the proposed location of the project will have on bonefish and spawning sites.
“Why was there a Heads of Agreement signed prior to a proper EIA in place?” he asked as he criticised provisions in the agreement that says the ceiling on fines the government could impose on the company is $3.5 million.
“$3.5 million can’t fix anything. Just the bonefish industry in itself contributes in excess of $141 million annually. It’s sustainable, renewable, natural resources and the most important resources in the Bahamas is the ocean. If we don’t have the ocean we don’t have anything,” he said.
Mr Dhunna said his organization was “categorically informed by both governments” that for an EIA to be performed and completed consultation was needed with the BEST commission.
“The BEST commission was not permitted to meet with us or refused to meet with us until a Heads of Agreement was signed, so we followed a process that was dictated to us by the consultants that we have,” he said. “The key point is this project will not proceed until an EIA is done, the mitigation is put in place and an independent body appointed by a government you’ve elected determines this is safe to proceed with.”
A breast cancer survivor named Ingrid said while residents would welcome a project that produces jobs, the process so far has been questionable.
“How have we gotten to this point that you, Mr Satpal, as a foreigner comes here and has to introduce this project and we East Enders know nothing about it? I just think it’s disrespectful, it’s disgraceful and it needs to be addressed. We are human beings. Treat us as such. That’s all we ask.”
Among the various residents who voiced unquestioned support for the project was Phillip Thompson Jr, a young man who said he spoke on behalf of young people in the area. He said people are afraid only because of the bad publicity the project has received.
Another supporter chided people for caring more for “trees” than the lives of people.
While most residents who spoke at last night’s meeting were critical of the project and the process so far, the speakers in support of the project drew noticeable applause.