• Slam regulations tabling as 'slap in the face'
• Hope environmental guards 'horrid mistake'
• Bonds cut from 50% to 5% of project value
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Activists yesterday voiced "shock" that newly-tabled regulations to safeguard the Bahamian environment contain multiple "loopholes" that will allow "inappropriate development projects to slip through".
Sam Duncombe, reEarth's president, told Tribune Business that yesterday's House of Assembly tabling of regulations governing Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) conduct and practices was both "a shock and a slap in the face" as it appeared that much of the environmental community's recommendations never made it into the final version.
The EIA regulations' tabling brings them into effect, but Ms Duncombe said she was hoping they are "a horrible mistake" that will be "yanked" and ultimately revised. She added that, in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian's devastation and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it was vital that the EIA regulations be "as robust as possible" to ensure all developers "dot the 'i's' and cross the 't's'".
Mrs Duncombe was backed by fellow environmentalist, Casuarina McKinney-Lambert, the Bahamas Reef Environment Educational Foundation (BREEF) executive director, who told this newspaper it was "incredibly frustrating that this important piece of legislation was passed with major loopholes".
Joining the reEarth president in calling for the EIA regulations to be further reviewed and changed, she said: "This is an essential piece of legislation that has the potential to improve the way that we develop as a country for the benefit of current and future generations.
"It’s unfortunate that the regulations were rushed to be tabled without incorporating a lot of good work from numerous organisations and experts who submitted recommendations. These recommendations included guidelines on the types of projects that should require EIAs, particularly ones likely to impact sensitive ecosystems, [and] the need for meaningful environmental bonds."
Romauld Ferreira, minister of the environment and housing, could not be reached for comment before press time despite Tribune Business placing phone calls and messages to him. This newspaper's review of then initial EIA regulations draft, and the final version tabled yesterday, showed some provisions have been watered down to make them less financially onerous for developers.
The first version stipulated that the Department of Environmental Planning and Protection's director, currently Rochelle Newbold, will "fix" the size of the performance bond that a developer has to lodge or deposit as security to cover the costs of remediating any environmental damage their project may cause.
The sum required was to be based on "the probable cost" of any environmental issues or infractions that were likely to arise, with the initial draft setting both a 'floor' and 'ceiling' for the size of the performance bond. This was to be "no less than 5 percent, and no more than 50 percent, of the value of the project".
However, the EIA regulations tabled in the House of Assembly yesterday drastically reduce the performance bond obligation imposed on developers "to a sum no more than 5 percent of the value of the project".
The change is likely due to fears that requiring developers to post a bond equivalent to 50 percent of their project's value is simply too financially onerous, and will deter both foreign direct investment (FDI) and Bahamian investment at a time when the Bahamian economy needs every cent it can get to create jobs and earn foreign currency amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Taking the $400m figure given by the Government for the next stage of Sir Franklyn Wilson's Jack's bay development as an example, a performance bond equivalent to 50 percent would equal $200m - immediately making the project non-viable. A security equal to 5 percent would be a much more manageable $20m.
However, environmental activists will likely argue that the new 5 percent "ceiling" is too small given the potential damage some projects could cause. The tabled EIA regulations, meanwhile, also introduced the new requirement that the performance bond must be lodged, and will not be available to the developer, from the start of construction to after three years of full operations.
Mrs Duncombe yesterday said consultation on the EIA regulations had been fraught from the start, with the Government ultimately extending the initial feedback period which was just five days. However, she suggested this had been in vain as it appeared none of the environmental community's recommendations had been incorporated in the final version.
"We're just a little bit in shock," she told Tribune Business. "The minister [Mr Ferreira] had reached out to us in July, and we asked them for an extension because the time period was absolutely insane; less than five days to comment on important regulations."
Activists had initially sought a further 30 days, but then realised even more time was required to consult environmental experts and "look at legislation in other jurisdictions. Instead of reinventing the wheel, incorporate what other jurisdictions have done"
"We heard today that the regulations have been tabled, and from the looks of things I don't think they've included any of the work we've submitted," Mrs Duncombe said. "We all worked on those regulations for the last couple of weeks so we could submit some robust comments on what was happening, but it looks like our comments were not considered and didn't make the final resolution.
"It's pretty much what they sent out. We had a great conversation with the director [Mrs Newbold] on Monday, and felt very positive that a lot of our comments were taken in a good way by the way by the Department. To have this now, to say it's a shock and a slap in the face is an under-statement.
"First of all, they didn't bring us to the table when they should have, and when we give them a response they don't take them into consideration. Why bother when you may as well go ahead and do what you want. I just hope this is a horrible mistake at this point, and they're going to yank those out and be redone," she continued.
"We spent weeks of work and consulting other people to make those regulations as robust as they can possibly be, especially in these times we're in where we have to be careful how we move forward, and make sure developers 'dot all the 'i's' and cross all the 't's'. These are the regulations that enforce that."
BREEF's Mrs McKinney-Lambert added that the decision to cap performance bonds at 5 percent of a project's value "is a joke, quite frankly, and disappointing because a lot of people put a lot of effort into making those regulations watertight and effective for the protection of current and future generations of Bahamians".
"What we're left with is something that misses the point," she said. "They're [the Government] supposed to be a strong proponent of public consultation. We recommended that there be a website set up where information on proposed projects be shared, and these have gone back to publishing newspaper notices. It's not an efficient way of sharing information and garnering public support.
"We want to make sure our development is sustainable socially, environmentally and economically, and the way these regulations are written misses that. We're concerned about having guidelines to determine which projects require EIAs, and there are loopholes in letting inappropriate projects get through.
"It just seems like these regulations were rushed through, and it's going to cause problems down the road. They're absolutely essential to all of our well-being. It's not just the environment at stake. We want to have clearly written regulations that provide a useful framework for everyone."
Mrs McKinney-Lambert added that the EIA regulations appeared not to support the Government's compliance with freedom of information and "good governance", and she said: "If you don't have access to information it's hard to make good decisions. We hope there will be an opportunity to make amendments to this and improve on them going forward."