‘Known risks manageable’ – EPA defends waiving environmental study for new Demerara Crossing
By Shikema Dey
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday strongly defended its decision to waive an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the construction of the new Demerara River Crossing.
Appearing before the three-member Environmental Assessment Board (EAB) at Cara Lodge, Georgetown, the EPA’s main defence in waiving this EIA [an environmental study] is that the benefits “outweigh the minimal impacts.”
This was posited by the Head of the EPA’s Project Management, Infrastructure and Tourism Department Elon Sooknanan who went head-to-head with Environmentalist Simone Mangal-Joly.
Mangal-Joly, a Guyanese who resides in the United States, believes that an EIA is a critical component to the construction of the four-lane, high span structure while Sooknanan argued that only an Environmental Management Plan (EMP) is needed to address minimal risks.
This plan apparently outlines measures to avoid adverse environmental and/or social impacts and to minimize them to acceptable levels or compensate for them.
It also includes responsibilities (staffing) and schedule for implementing the mitigation measures, technical feasibility, cultural appropriateness, and expected effectiveness in providing mitigation to all affected groups.
In his presentation, Sooknanan explained that the project went through EPA’s rigorous screening process based on the scale, location, sensitivity and potential impact. And this falls in line with Section 11(2) (A) of the Environmental Act Cap 20:05.
This section states that the EPA shall not issue an environmental permit unless the agency is satisfied that the developer can comply with the terms and conditions of the environmental permit
Sooknanan emphasised that the EPA was guided by the project summary submitted and a feasibility study conducted in 2017 by private firm – Lievense CSO Engineering and Contracting. He said this study also included both an environmental and social impact assessment.
He pointed out as well that this assessment concluded that the overall environmental impacts of the project are “moderate and manageable” from a technical, social and financial point of view.
In addition to consultations with other agencies, including the Ministry of Public Works and the Central Housing and Planning Authority (CH&PA), Sooknanan said the EPA determined that the project would not need an EIA as the impacts would not be “significant.”
“We are not saying that impacts are not going to be here.
“The main potential receptors are residents and commercial activities within the vicinity of Nandy Park, and La Grange on the west side however, the impacts are expected to be minimal when you look at the benefits.”
He explained too that the EPA, before arriving at its decision, considered environmental and social impacts including air quality, noise, radiation, land stability and climate change.
According to the EPA’s Screening Decision, published on its website, the impacts on air quality can be expected, coupled with noise and vibrations and surface water quality.
‘CART BEFORE THE HORSE’
Meanwhile, the actions by the EPA were seen as putting “the cart before the horse,” according to the environmentalist Mangal-Joly.
During her virtual presentation, she argued that the EPA did not offer a sufficient explanation on why the EIA was waived nor did they identify all the likely impacts of a project of such magnitude.
“The fatal gaps are fatal enough – you are not in a position to waive the EIA, you really are not. And as much as you feel you want to, it is not the correct decision.
“There is inadequate design information to be able to identify all likely impacts and then if you cannot have a list of impacts, you do not know whether they are going to be significant or not because you have gaps, there is a lack of scientific rigour in considering the impacts,” the environmentalist argued.
Mangal-Joly remained adamant that the EPA’s reasoning for the decision “is not adequate enough” and asked the EAB to consider revoking the decision of the EPA and to ensure an EIA is done before the construction of the bridge commences.
“You have failed to identify subgroups of stakeholders that will be adversely affected and that is not just the folks along the road…consider a school that is going to need relocation and the people along the river along the river that use the river, the fishermen, consider them,” she further argued.
The Environmental Protection Act gives the EAB the statutory authority to determine whether the EPA acted rationally in waiving an EIA and whether that decision should be reversed.
The Assessment Board now has two weeks to deliberate and decide what the next steps will be.
The proposed new Demerara Crossing is expected to land at Nandy Park on the East Bank of Demerara and Meer Zorgen/La Grange on the West Bank of Demerara. It serves as a critical component of the government’s drive to expand and modernize Guyana’s transport infrastructure.
The three members of the Assessment Board are: Dr. Garvin Cummings, Pradeepa Bholanauth as the Chair and Joslyn McKenzie.