Garbage meeting fizzles: Many questions, no answers and no solutions

POSTED: 09/23/15 6:59 PM

St. Maarten – At the end of a long meeting, finally there were some fireworks when opposition MP asked Vromi-Minister Claret Connor to answer one question: “Is there a contract with a company to build the waste-to-energy plant and how does this jive with your visit to a project in Miami?”

Minister Connor, who had just said that he would be able to inform the parliament on Monday when he would be able to answer the more than one hundred questions MPs had asked, did not bite. “I want to avoid that this issue becomes a public spectacle,” he said.

“Something is not kosher,” Wescot-Williams retorted. Parliament President Dr. Lloyd Richardson came to the minister’s rescue: “The minister feels that he cannot answer the question right now and I have to respect that. Meeting adjourned.”

Shortly after 1 p.m. yesterday Richardson also adjourned the meeting about the landfill and the waste-to-energy plant after a fierce exchange between the faction leaders of the National Alliance, William Marlin, and the United People’s party, Franklin Meyers.

Half an hour earlier, the parliament had decided to let all speakers pose their question before going on a lunchbreak and giving Vromi-Minister Claret Connor the opportunity to gather information for his answers.

When Meyers, as the last speaker, took the floor after William Marlin’s address, he asked for the lunch break. “You cannot make up the rules as you go,” Marlin said to Meyers’ position that the agreement was about questions posed by MPs who had asked for the meeting. In the end, President Richardson cut the argument short and adjourned the meeting until 3 p.m.

The meeting started around 11 a.m. with an address by National Alliance MP Christophe Emmanuel who earlier this week visited the dump and shot a video there.

“It is a disaster waiting to happen,” Emmanuel said. “A cholera epidemic is waiting to happen.”

Without being specific, but with a thinly veiled reference to UP-MP Theo Heyliger when he spoke about the stalled waste-to-energy plant project, Emmanuel said “There is just one man who does not want to get this done. In a democracy the majority rules, not one man. That is a dictatorship.”

Emmanuel described the situation in the shanty town on the dump in great detail and bemoaned the inactivity with the waste-to-energy plant. “The solution is right there and we pretend nothing is going to happen.”

“How much longer do we have to wait and what are the complications?” Democratic Party MP Sarah Wescot-Williams asked, referring to statements made earlier this year by then acting Vromi-Minister Marcel Gumbs. “Which players have changed at the company that was awarded the contract to build the plant?’

Wescot-Williams furthermore referred to statements made by Gebe Director René Gartner on August 7. He basically said that day that the electricity the plant would sell to Gebe was more expensive than the electricity Gebe is producing.

Wescot-Williams also referred to the Nature Foundation report about the pollution of the Great Salt Pond with heavy metals and asked about the 2.3 million guilders management contract for the dump and the status of the waste ordinance.

National Alliance MP Silveria Jacobs asked for data over the past ten years about the rise in patients suffering from asthma and respiratory problems. “The toxic fumes from the landfill when it is on fire are affecting us.”

She wants to know whether the government has a policy for separating waste and whether there is a plan for cooperation with the French side about waste management. Jacobs also asked whether there are plans to clean up the pollution in the Great Salt Pond.

“I see people fishing in the pond. Is that safe with the types of chemicals in the water? Should we not place warning signs there?”

Independent MP Leona Marlin-Romeo agreed with MP Emmanuel’s concerns. “But I do not agree that this is up to one person.”

Reflecting on the situation on the dump, Marlin-Romeo wondered whether the country is “importing poverty.” She said, “Are we stooping to the way others live? And how did these people get electricity?”

UP-MP Johan Leonard asked how many people live on the dump, whether dumping is supervised and whether the dump poses an explosion hazard.

“To me it is important to solve this as soon as possible,” Leonard said.

National Alliance faction leader William Marlin noted that there was a proposal on the table for the waste-to-energy plant in 2012, when he was a minister. “The government pulled the plug on Windward Roads and the company claimed damages to the tune of 5 million guilders. Has a settlement been reached? And how much has the government paid?”

Marlin said that the proposal that was on the table under his tenure would not have cost the country a penny. “The government would give the company a concession for twenty or thirty years and in return there would be a power purchase agreement with Gebe. One company was extremely good and competitive. They offered a price for electricity below the cost price of Gebe. This should have been a done deal by August 2013.” The construction of the plant would have been well underway by now if this process had continued, Marlin said. “Did the government abandon this plan and if so, why?” he asked.

The Memorandum of Understanding between Gebe and “a foreign company” was also brought up by Marlin. “I understand that 100,000 guilders was paid to a local law office to write the memorandum. Is this correct? And if the memorandum is no longer in place, then what is in place?”

Lastly, Marlin said that he had heard that former Gebe-Director William Brooks had been approached to return to the company but that the process is on hold because “someone in government” wants somebody else in that position. Marlin wants to know from the minister whether this is indeed the case.

“One of the areas we have neglected over the years is the landfill,” MP Franklin Meyers acknowledged after lunch. “Now that we have highlighted this issue, let’s deal with the problem.”

Meyers noted that eradicating the whole landfill is something that is not going to happen. “It would cost between $100 and $200 million. And even if we mined 100,000 ton every year there will still be something left. You cannot turn something into nothing. But if we don’t deal with it  is getting out of hand and it will affect the health of our citizens.”

Meyers asked for an assessment of the situation at the dump and for a cleanup plan. He also asked about risk from gases emanating from the landfill for employees in the new government administration building.

MP Maurice Lake, the former minister of Vromi sat with mixed feelings in the meeting. “There was a concession agreement in the Council of Ministers when I was a minister,” he said. “We also have a company that has won the bid. Does the minister now plan to change that company?” MP Theo Heyliger noted that there was a solution in 2010, one that involved Windward Roads. “It appeared that the plant we had in mind was never functional. It did not work. So keep in mind that whatever decision you are going to take is everlasting. It behooves the government to make sure that the technology it is going to use is not worse than what we have now.”

Heyliger also pointed to the crucial importance of the power purchase agreement the waste-to-energy plant would have to sign with Gebe. He said that investors want a return on their capital of 20 percent. “You will see that come back in the tariffs in a power purchase agreement,” he warned.

Taking an investment of $100 million against a 5.5 percent interest rate over twenty years as an example, Heyliger said that this would translate in monthly charges of around $700,000. “You have to absorb that money in the price of the electricity you are going to charge to consumers. This power purchase agreement warrants a major discussion.”

Heyliger asked whether it is true that it would take 20 to 25 years of mining before the whole garbage mountain has disappeared.

He noted that the project he visited in Miami with Minister Connor had researched 144 different facilities. “They have been working on a waste-to-energy plant for fourteen years. I would want to know whether the company that won the bid (Synergy – ed.) is actually operating a plant based on its technology. We need to do business with a company that does not only have a history, but also a future.”

MP Frans Richardson wants to know what damage the landfill has done to the health of citizens, saying that former minister of tourism and economic affairs is constantly sick due to the dump. He also wondered where all the plans for the project from previous governments are and why it seems impossible to solve the problem. “The landfill is almost as high as Mount William,” he observed.

After brief remarks by MPs Cornelius de Weever and Silvio Matser, Minister Connor said that he had taken note of all the questions. Because some of them require information from institutions outside of his ministry, he said he would be able to inform parliament on Monday when all answers will be ready.


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