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Prime Minister Andrew Holness yesterday defended his decision to approve a mining licence for land in Discovery Bay, St Ann that environmentalists insist should be protected.

Holness entered the raging debate during an address at the official opening and dedication ceremony of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security building in St Ann and via a statement from his office.

His stout defence of the mining approval came after Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) and other green advocates took him to task for overturning a decision by National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) and its board, Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) not to allow mining and quarrying at Dry Harbour Mountain in Discovery Bay, St Ann, by Bengal Development Limited/Jamaica World LLC.

“There are those who would want to shape the Government in a narrative that it does not seek to protect the environmental assets of the people; I rubbish that narrative,” Holness said in his address in St Ann.

“There are those who would want to cast the Government in a position as if to say we are bereft of any form of equity and ethics in the making of decisions about environmental assets. I wish to remind the public that it is this Government who put an end to the Goat Island project — a project that [we were] told [would] bring immense economic gain, and we chose the environment over that,” he said.

He also said that it was his Government which ended “many years of dithering” by finally deciding to properly demark the very sensitive ecological asset, the Cockpit Country, in Trelawny.

“There is a kind of narrative sometimes which would want to singularly direct the opinion of the people that there is always a confrontation, a binary approach in development that you can’t have environmental promotion and preservation and have economic activity,” he said.

 In his statement from Jamaica House, Holness explained that the Government, through NEPA on behalf of NRCA, had received the application from Bengal for 572 acres of lands in 2010.

He said, following established procedures, NEPA accepted the application and commenced a process of consultation with public sector agencies and departments, the St Ann Parish Council, environmental non-governmental organisations and private sector stakeholders.

“It was widely agreed that the application for 572 acres to be mined would not be favourably considered without a rapid ecological assessment to inform any decision to be taken on the application. Subsequent to the assessment, the agency determined that a portion of the lands (123 acres) could be considered for mining activities as those lands were marginal lands and already disturbed due to a number of factors to include human intrusion and previous mining activities. The applicants were therefore directed to do an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA),” the prime minister stated.

He said NEPA’s actions and subsequent endorsement by NRCA were predicated on the fact that mining was allowed in the area in 2001. “In fact, the Mines and Geology Division granted a licence for mining and quarrying — spanning the years 2001 to 2008 — to mine aggregates for the construction of the North Coast Highway,” the prime minister’s statement said.

“The facts show that from 2010 to present there have been several applications for mining on the property, each resulting in greater study of the area and refinements of the terms of reference for the EIA. Indeed, NEPA had earlier rejected EIA reports as they did not meet the requirements,” he added.

Holness said further that in January 2020, the matter was considered by the technical review committee, which comprises representatives from various government departments and agencies.

“The technical experts and subject specialists engaged in a comprehensive and balanced deliberation on the application,” he said, adding that while the technical review considered the environmental threats and outlined the basis on which the application could be rejected, it also considered that the environmental threats were capable of mitigation.

“The technical review, therefore offered an option to accept the application and outlined the conditions under which acceptance would be appropriate. NEPA incorporated the deliberations of the technical review committee and presented two options to the NRCA for consideration — one to accept with conditions and the other to reject the application. Four months later, in May 2020, the NRCA took the decision to deny the application,” the prime minister’s statement said.

He said that, as is established under Section 35 of the NRCA Act, the applicants appealed the NRCA decision. The matter was considered by the then minister without portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation Leslie Campbell, who considered the submissions and sought technical advice.

“As the process allows, submissions in the appeal were heard from both the NEPA technical team and the applicants. The minister, in hearing the appeal, examined several factors, including how the NRCA arrived at its decision, land management and use, minerals and environmental enterprises as economic drivers, mitigation measures to prevent or reduce environmental and health hazards, the regulatory and enforcement capacity of the regulator, and the specific development proposal of the applicant,” Holness explained.

He said, based on the environmental permit stipulations, Bengal Development Limited is directed to restore the land, replant trees and engage in other activities that would protect and improve environmental management, and establish wide buffer zones. These, he said, are among more than 70 conditions that have been imposed on the company.

“It was therefore concluded that the measures put in place would mitigate the impact on species biodiversity for the area and ensure greater management of the total acreage. Mining has only been permitted on the disturbed marginal areas of the land, which already has been mined and amounts to approximately 20 per cent of the total area applied for. The remaining 80 per cent of the 572 acres will continue to be untouched and form part of the forested cluster in the parish,” Holness said, adding that the developers are required to obtain a mining licence from the Mines and Geology Division.

“Given concerns raised in the public domain, we have ensured that a robust and transparent process was engaged in making this determination. We understand and appreciate, and are sensitive to all the issues involved, and believe we have found a sustainable solution to preserve and protect our environment, while at the same time pursuing our economic and social well-being,” he said.