The Canadian firm contracted to construct the US$250 million port in Kingstown has received Planning authorities’ permission to dredge offshore Argyle International Airport (AIA) to reclaim lands near the city.
“And there are lots of outstanding issues which have to be addressed,” Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said on NBC Radio, on Wednesday.
“I see some people say that the government has given them a permit. That’s not so. They got Planning permission, subject to certain conditions. The Planning Board doesn’t own the resource. The resource is owned by the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” he said.
Journalist and social commentator Jomo Thomas has called the issue to the attention of the nation, writing in his “Plain Talk” column on Jan. 27, that the permit allows the firm, Aecon Group Inc., to dredge 1.17 million cubic metres of sand from an area 820 yards south of and 550 yards out from AIA.
But Gonsalves said “there has to be appropriate negotiations with those things and with all the conditions attached thereto, some of them, which are put forward by Planning”.
The prime minister said he had read the social and environmental impact assessment done by an independent local person “and I considered that particular report to have been very provisional”.
In his commentary, Thomas, who is also a lawyer, quoted Andrew Simmons, a Vincentian environmentalist with over four decades of experience, and expressed concern and alarm when told of the plan to dredge the area.
“The dredging of sand off the shore will destroy the fragile ecosystem- coral reefs, mangrove swamps, seagrass beds which are integral for coastal defence.” According to Dr. Simmons, “dredging will destroy the fishing beds located east and west of the area designated for dredging. It can potentially completely wipe out the livelihood of fisher folks in Calliaqua,” Thomas cited Simmons as saying on Thomas’ “Voices” radio programme.
But Gonsalves said there are “certain other things which are required to be done” regarding the permit.
He said that three months ago, there was a discussion at the Cabinet Room involving Aecon, the government’s Project Implementation Unit — headed by Laura Anthony-Browne, relevant public servants and some members of the Cabinet.
“… it was a robust meeting because — I don’t want to go into details but what was presented to me by Aecon was simply unacceptable. I used very firm language. They have since been holding discussions with Laura Anthony-Browne and her team and they have been addressing some questions,” the prime minister said.
“But there’re still large matters which loom in my head about specific questions,” he said, adding that he had asked for face-to-face conversation between fishermen in Calliaqua — an east coast town south of the airport — and that meeting was expected to take place this past week.
“Be so I’d naturally be concerned about issues, environmental issues, things concerning with what may happen in relation to sea erosion towards the Brighton end and then what would be the impact towards the sea defence at Argyle International,” Gonsalves said.
“I’ve seen stuff which have been written and I’m reading everything but I will bring to bear my judgment dealing with all of these matters…,” he said, adding that if the government is not satisfied, the company will have to bring the backfill material from elsewhere and this may extend the targeted completion deadline beyond 2025.
“I’ve been around this thing for a long time and I’ve had many, many reports that I’ve had to digest to get expert advice,” Gonsalves said, noting that he is not an expert in the area.
“When you are at it a long time you develop an acuity of judgment much better than some persons, I would wager who doesn’t have the experience in dealing with these things and with all the sides, all the various sides. So, that’s a significant issue which is to be resolved because the project is clearly an important project,” the prime minister said.