Fortis gets green light: Privy Council backs Belize dam project




Elizabeth Mistry


National Post (Canada)


Chalillo Dam, Belize

LONDON - Newfoundland energy conglomerate Fortis Inc. will step up construction on the Chalillo dam in Belize after a ruling by the Privy Council in London yesterday gave the green light to the US$30-million project.

A 3:2 majority verdict dismissed an appeal by the Belizean Alliance of Conservation Organisations (Bacongo), a coalition of environmental groups which claimed Fortis, through its local subsidiary, Becol, wanted to build the 50-metre-high concrete dam on porous and rock over an unstable site.

It was also claimed the project would destroy rare habitats which are home to some of central America's most endangered species including tapirs and scarlet macaws.

Bacongo wanted the Privy Council -- the highest court of appeal for several Caribbean nations -- to order a new environmental impact assessment after it was revealed developers had submitted a map that did not show that the site straddles the Cooma Cairn faultline which, according to Belizean newspaper reports, is active.

The NGO which had financial backing from the Washington-based National Resources Defence Council, said that the environmental study paid for by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) did not include a correct assessment of the geology at the site in a remote area near the Guatemalan border.

Three law lords ruled that there was not sufficient evidence to show that the rock was unsuitable. However in a dissenting judgment, Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe said that had he been aware of a previous report commissioned by Fortis/Becol which questioned the nature of the rock at the site, he would have allowed the appeal and overridden the decision by the Belizean Department of Environment to clear the project.

The judgment criticized the Belizean government, which last year passed a law enabling Fortis, which, via its local subsidiary, Becol, will own the dam and sell electricity to the tiny Caribbean nation for the next 50 years, to bypass normal construction formalities and also sought to shield the project from any judgments by courts outside Belize such as the privy Council.

This law was repealed at the start of December last year, after the government said it had served its purpose.

John Evans, Fortis chief engineer said: "This is the eighth or ninth time this has come to court and I am happy with the decision, that the court is siding with the project. Obviously the legal hearings will delay completion and there will be some additional costs but I envisage that work will be completed by 2005."

Richard Buxton, solicitor for Bacongo said: "It is a disappointment but the dissenting judgment is remarkably powerful and vindicates bringing the claim."