Dominica's Geothermal Project: Promise or Nightmare?
Public Health, Social Safety and Environmental Concerns.
By:Christiana Abraham, Ph.D,
The fury of concern by residents of Laudat and the Roseau Valley that has recently surfaced in relation to the proposed geothermal project cannot be ignored. It should neither be reduced to the simplistic logic of people 'playing politics' nor 'against development'. This issue raises fundamental questions about peoples' health and safety and the implications of development projects on citizens' lives. This issue should concern all Dominicans, as this is a small island with a fragile and interrelated eco-system.
As a villager and home-owner of Laudat, I would like to add my support to this citizen's movement and to register serious apprehension relating to the possible short and long term implications of this geothermal project. The fact that people are voicing concerns should be embraced as part of the democratic process. Contemporary development experts suggest that development is about people; their participation and consent is essential for any project to succeed.
This uproar has arisen since Government announced the signing of an 18.1 million dollar project with the Iceland Drilling Company expected to go ahead this year with Laudat earmarked as the principal site of operation. This is largely because it has become increasingly evident to residents that geothermal extraction, despite its claims of renewable energy can be quite harmful to human and environmental life. The geothermal process involves the harvesting of geothermal liquids from deep within the earth to generate electricity. Fluids drawn have been described as a cocktail of gases and toxic elements containing carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, arsenic and mercury among a long list of others. If released into the atmosphere individually or in combination, they can be toxic. And this is at the core of the concerns raised now and in meetings held with villagers in 2011 and 2012 during the test stage of the project. Officials were quick to reassure residents that all would be fine, but mere verbal reassurances are not enough. Furthermore, officials are suspected of not being forthright with disclosure of possible harmful effects of the project that would have surfaced from the famous Environmental Impact Assessment which is claimed to have been conducted before the drilling stage. This EIA is yet to be made publicly accessible.
The risks of water and air contamination, health and safety concerns, tremors, volcanic activity, land subsidence and sink holes that can be caused by geothermal exploration continue to be extensively discussed and remain central to the debate. Reading from news articles, posts, and listening to citizens expressing themselves over the radio suggests that people have become well acquainted with reports and testimonials of possible short and long term ailments, chronic illnesses and harmful implications for the environment associated with geothermal extraction in many countries.
It must be remembered that an important part of this focus on Laudat is its location. Laudat is located at the peak of the Roseau Valley, sitting at the bases of Morne Micotrin, Morne Watt and the Morne Trois Pitons National Park. As one of Dominica's highest altitude villages, (2000 ft. above sea level), it records among the island's highest levels of rainfall. Its contribution to water generation and storage capacity is therefore crucial for a large part of the island, and this water cannot afford to be contaminated by hazardous toxins sipping into the water table.
Similar concerns also extend to air contamination. During the test drilling stage in the middle of last year, people in the immediate vicinity of the wells were asked to evacuate as a precaution because engineers did not seem to know what would have surfaced when the test wells were released. One wonders how prepared the public health service and the Princess Margaret Hospital were in case there was an actual problem with air contamination on that day. The long-term health care arrangements required for such a project are yet to be addressed.
Also of concern is the project's relationship with the UWI Seismic Unit in Trinidad that monitors volcanic activity throughout the region. Up to the test drilling stage, the Unit reported that they had not been informed of the drilling activities that were taking place. Dominica has recorded much volcanic activity over the last few years and the proposed plant would be in this active zone. The hope is that the unit has become somehow involved in the essential volcanic monitoring that is required.
Accountability and Guarantees: One of the important issues this raises is who is/will be responsible for any short and long-term harm done to residents of Laudat and the Roseau Valley. If people are made sick, or God forbid, killed because of air or water contamination, land subsidence or volcanic activity, who will assume responsibility? The Iceland Drilling Company? The Government of Dominica? The funding agencies? People want to know what health and safety guarantees have been put in place and who will be responsible for continuous health, and environmental monitoring?
Location and Relocation: The location of the proposed plant is a major concern for those living in its immediate vicinity. The question that we ask is why is this facility situated at such close proximity to people's homes at Laudat in the first place? Homes closest to the proposed site are located a mere 100 - 150 feet away. My own home is about 1,500 feet from the site. Roxy's Guest House, the village's sole hotel, and the village school and church are a few hundred feet further. The presence of a functioning plant offers the daunting prospect of noise pollution in an otherwise peaceful environment. Villagers got a taste of this during the drilling stage. A number of farms with citrus, vegetables, dasheen, flowers and livestock are also within hundreds of feet from the proposed site.
We understand there is increasing talk of relocation within a large radius from the plant. Does this mean that the entire village of Laudat and the Roseau Valley may have to be relocated? (Laudat is only five miles from Roseau). As for relocation, I know of no one who has agreed to this. Many of the people who live in the village of Laudat, have a deep, even 'spiritual' connection to this place. They were born and raised there and so were their parents, grand and great, great, grandparents. Most villagers live on their ancestor's lands, and view their duty as living from the land, protecting it, and passing it on the next generation. Any development that promises to remove them from this sacred heritage is not considered development that is good for 'the people'.
The Boiling Lake, warm springs, and hot water industry: A long list of important tourism attractions that makes Dominica special risks being affected by this project, especially the Boiling Lake and sulfur springs of the Valley of Desolation. Add to this, the ingenious hot springs and hot-bath niche industry that has emerged over the last few years in Wotten Waven and Trafalgar. The manipulation of the delicate pressure that allows hot water to naturally rise to the surface of these geysers and hot springs puts it all at risk. Furthermore, the harvesting of the geothermal resource for industrial purposes is bound to compete with the quantity and quality of the hot water. We may easily be looking at the bleak prospect of an empty Boiling Lake and water-less hot springs.
Tourism in Laudat and the Roseau Valley: Tourism in Laudat and the Roseau valley stands to also be affected. The proposed plant is to be located just off the road to the Titou Gorge and the Boiling Lake. Tourists visit the area for its natural beauty and its large diversity of plant and animal life. A noisy industrial plant potentially spewing toxic gases into the atmosphere will certainly not be an attractive complement to this rainforest environment. The Roseau Valley area has been earmarked as a major focus point of the island's tourism product. Laudat is home to the Fresh Water Lake, Boeri Lake, Middleham Falls, the Titou Gorge and the world famous Boiling Lake and Valley of Desolation. The village also serves both of Trafalgar's spectacular waterfalls, the resulting Roseau River and a number of rivers that flow along Dominica's east coast. The introduction of this plant to the area could be catastrophic for its tourism appeal. Priorities need to be set straight. Is this area earmarked for tourism or as an industrial zone? We should be very careful not to inadvertently roast the 'Siffleur Montagne' that lays the golden egg.
A sense of déjà vu and fatigue: When villagers of Laudat express fatigue with a project such as this, it is not without precedent. There is a long history of state acquisition of lands and water resources for electricity that has plagued this village for the last sixty years. People frankly feel robbed, exploited and having to fight recurring battles to protect their land and crops. The development of the major hydro-electricity project in the 1950s and 60s saw large portions of farmers lands extracted for pennies (literally). Villagers watched their precious citrus, and dasheen fields bulldozed to make way for waterways and dams. My grandfather (Henry Rolle) often talked about that period, but he had the good sense to joke about it.
The second expansion of the hydro project in the late 1980's saw a repeat of the same. This time, farmers received dimes (literally) 10cents a square foot for lands that were acquired by the state for the project. Streams that had served peoples home and gardens in the lower part of the village for centuries were colonized and diverted to feed a voracious appetite for water. All available water in the village was snatched without consultation for the production of hydroelectricity. Empty, over-grown riverbeds where there once were streams lay bare to this day. And again, all of this was for the promise of more and cheaper energy. I covered this story as a young reporter with MARPIN's News Focus and witnessed villagers' anger and their utter helplessness with the situation. One of the village's respected elders is said to have died from heart-break. His home and citrus plantation were bulldozed to make way for a water dam and its water ways.
More recently, the Rainforest Aerial Tram Project acquired more than forty acres of land in the village for its set-up that began over fourteen years ago. The tram has come and gone. Tram equipment left behind lies rusting on site, but the landowners report that they are yet to receive compensation. To describe the mood in Laudat as "development fatigue" may be an understatement in this context.
Laudat as it is already contributes more than its fair share. It bears the brunt of DOMLEC's resource and physical infrastructure, housing water dams, tanks, pipes, intakes and a power station. A large wooden-encased water pipe winds its way through the entire length of the village - from the Fresh Water Lake to Trafalgar amidst villagers' fears that it is may be maintained by hazardous chemicals. At the same time, the village is host to many of the island's important tourism sites, while it contributes to producing and feeding water to a large part of the Island. It needs to be left to do what it already does.
Finally, I would like to draw attention to the simplistic tendency to reduce this discussion to political allegiance as quite insulting. The Energy Minister sadly used this approach in his recent response to villagers concerns. It is as if citizens are only allowed to think and express themselves within the narrow political binaries of 'for' or 'against'. This must be put into perspective. Since the 1970s we have seen eight premiers and prime ministers and their cabinets manage this country. Many political parties have come and gone, and configurations and allegiances of power have merged and shifted. In the larger context of time, today's specific political power arrangements and allegiances will represent a fleeting moment. But this discussion is much larger. It is about people's citizenship, their safety, their basic human right to breath breathable air, drink non-polluted water and enjoy their homes. It is also about people's right to express their concerns, their need to be respected and listened to by leaders and to have their concerns addressed in good faith. What matters here is that in fifty years the delicate environment in which we live in Laudat and the Roseau Valley will have been preserved and sustained.
In making the case for this project, government has capitalized on the promise of its revenue generating potential and the possibility of lower electricity bills. Those are all good promises. In The Dominica Story, historian Dr. Lennox Honychurch addresses the failures and successes associated with the promises of the hydro expansion project of the 1980s. To Honychurch, the expansion allowed the widening of the electrical grid that facilitated the electrification of the Island's east coast. However, the promise of Dominica achieving cheaper energy than most other Caribbean states as an incentive for manufacturing and increased foreign investment was not met. Honychurch suggests unexpected problems with the terrain, conflict with contractors, and initial maintenance expenses due to landslides attributed to dampening the project's original optimism of cheaper electricity.
If this geothermal project goes ahead, electricity bills may or may not be affected; who knows? History is sure to analyze it successes and failures and it will also judge this government for having protected or destroyed the environment. The key issue at stake for us all is that the village of Laudat and much of the Roseau valley will not become an un-inhabitable wasteland.