Sunday 24th December, 2003

 
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Smelter? NIMBY, you don’t!

Personally, I would not wish to live within a 100-mile radius of any aluminium smelter plant given my understanding of the uncertainties over the human and environmental health impacts.

My 100-mile buffer zone is called-in the environmental policy literature-the “Not in My Backyard (NIMBY), you don’t!” syndrome in which people may be quite happy to have a project established but not in their neighbourhood!

What are the Government’s criteria for locating the smelter and what role is identified for the public therein including those whose backyards have been targeted? National Energy Corporation CEO Prakash Saith set out the Government’s criteria at the December 6 smelter symposium: 1,000 acres of continuous land, preferably government-owned and zoned for industrial use with available or easily developed infrastructure, proximity to a harbour, suitable geological conditions and minimum occupancy and social impacts. Notice, there was no mention of human health or environmental impacts.

In so far as the social factor is addressed it is logical to seek a site with minimal occupancy-related social impacts but how is minimal defined and by whom?

Are there other locations in T&T that meet these criteria?

Have non-T&T site locations been considered?

Prof John Spence has suggested smelting in Guyana, for example, with downstream plants located in T&T, pointing to Japan with major downstream aluminium facilities but no smelters.

Why not the USA itself? Alcoa director Wade Hughes recently claimed that his company is reopening smelters in the USA similar to the one proposed for Chatham.

Since we already are shipping LNG to the USA why not have the energy requirement for the smelters allocated from our huge gas exports to that country?

In this way the proposed transshipment of the dangerous pot-liner waste would not take place: it would be within the final destination: USA! We could then import the smelter output for the downstream industries.

Five minutes democracy

Who should have the power to make this monumental decision as to whether to invest in such aluminium smelters and their location? Ultimately such power must rest with parliament and/or agencies delegated by it with such powers.

The Environmental Management Authority (EMA) is the legally empowered regulator, for example, to provide a Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC). The EMA already has done so for the Alutrint, La Brea, smelter. The CEC process is still under way for Alcoa with the environmental impact assessment not yet submitted.

However, there are no similar regulators in terms of certificates of social and economic clearance, as it were. In these instances, the responsibility ought to default to us, the people, of the democratic Republic of T&T through our parliamentary representatives.

Theoretically our democratic system is comparable to a publicly trading company on the stock exchange. By analogy, the PM and Cabinet are the executives who ought to be implementing policies made by the Board (aka Parliament) itself appointed by we, the shareholders in T&T Inc.

Punish them

The problem is that in a small Parliament the policy-making and executive arm collapses into one. The political reality we live, therefore, is five minutes democracy. Once voting is over, power resides in the Government, and, more particularly, in that of the prime minister.

There is little we can do quite frankly, within the current constitutional arrangements except to punish the incumbents at the next five-minute opportunity.

The Opposition MPs will all say nay to the smelters if it was brought to Parliament tomorrow morning but if back in power, are likely to change their tune quicker than a 24-hour lizard transforms its colour!

And then we would be powerless to do anything but wait until the next election to punish them as well: Something we have been doing for at least 20 years, in my calculation.

The answer to the final question is that we have to fix the system. We need a Parliament that separates representation and hence policy-making, from execution of policies, including a role for civil society to weigh issues on their individual merit rather than on being automatically for or against the Government.

Complementing this ought to be a constitutionally entrenched right of the population to have referenda on any national issue if an agreed proportion of the population signs up (say 20-25 per cent of the population). In which case we could put the smelter decision to a referendum vote.

Hopefully, all those who have been motivated into action see the connection between the concrete smelters cause celebre and the more systemic, governance cause general.

A merry Christmas to all.

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