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JAMAICA: Regulators Mull Viability of Ferti-irrigation

by Patricia WilliamsIPS News
December 26th, 2007

BLACK RIVER, Jamaica, Dec 26 (IPS) - Appleton Estates seemed to have solved the centuries old problem of what to do with distillery waste when they started a new project eight years ago. However, they are yet to convince regulators and locals that it is a viable option.

In 1999, Jamaica’s largest manufacturer and exporter of rums announced that their ferti-irrigation project was an environmentally friendly way to dispose of the noxious liquid produced during the distilling of rum. Ferti-irrigation allowed Appleton to recycle the high nutrient wastewater called dunder; recover topsoil from sugarcane wash-water; lower use of chemical fertiliser and reduce water use. Dunder is a cheap source of nourishment for the cane fields, Appleton claimed.

Many who share the plains of the south coast parish of St. Elizabeth with Appleton say the project has failed. They complain that dunder continues to foul their rivers.

Throughout its 250-year history, Appleton like other sugar and rum factories has channelled dunder and other wastewater into sinkholes or directly into rivers. Not so long ago, the water used to wash cane at Appleton, emptied directly into the Black River -- over which the factory is built -- taking with it soil and fertiliser residue from the cane fields.

Appleton began spreading dunder on its cane in February 2000, with the approval of the Water Resources Authority (WRA) and the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA).

Businessman and activist Charles Swaby -- who operates the Swamp Safari on the Black River --says that every year his and other business are seriously impacted by the release of dunder. Swaby, whose crocodile watching tour attracts visitors from all over the world, says dunder turns the river black and kills fish and other aquatic life. The smell not unlike rotten eggs lasts for days, he says. The owners of at least two other tourism related businesses confirm Swaby’s reports.

Swaby has led a long and vocal campaign against what he believes is the reluctance of local regulators to force Appleton to clean up. The National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), the agency responsible for monitoring and enforcing environmental regulations, is aware of the problem. Enforcement inspector Keith Jones has, on several occasions, responded to "pollution incidents". On each occasion the result is the same: "fish kill due to the organic substance in the water source likely to be the Appleton Estate".

Appleton’s age puts it outside the purview of wastewater regulations -- which came into effect in 1996. But, environmentalists are urging authorities to use other legislation to force compliance.

Spirits Pool Association of Jamaica, an organisation of local rum makers is, however, convinced that ferti-irrigation which has been tried successfully in many cane-growing areas around the world, can work in Jamaica.

Consultant scientist to the Appleton project David Lee, was brought on board to bring the disposal system inline with current wastewater standards. Lee is also responsible for solving the wastewater problems of all the island’s distilleries and sugar factories.

Spirits Pool has applied for an environmental permit to proceed with its ferti- irrigation project -- but regulators seem unable to make up their minds about the project’s results.

The WRA and the NRCA have disputed the interpretation of project data by Spirits Pool. It is the responsibility of the NRCA to protect the environment, which it does through NEPA.

Difficulties already experienced during the project’s lifetime -- not least of which are illegal dumping by truckers and NRCA approved dumping -- may have invalidated data.

The WRA says the data was invalidated when Appleton ran out of storage space and sought the NRCA’s permission to dump dunder into a sinkhole in 2002 and 2003.

The WRA says the dumping and the spills -- which Swaby says occur annually -- have fouled the data.

Spirits Pool disagrees: they believe the data is still legitimate, noting that there were no pollution incidents during the three-year monitoring phase.

Unable to make a decision, the NRCA sought mediation from University of The West Indies Chemistry Professor Anthony Greenaway. He too found deficiencies in the data. His review states: "The sites selected for monitoring were primarily based on accessibility and did not adequately cover the ground waters or the waters flowing into the valley".

Environmental lobby group Jamaica Environment Trust believes the distillery should clean up its act or be forced to. Its executive Director Diana McCauley has suggested taking the fight to the international market place. Hitting Appleton in the pockets, she contends, is one way of forcing the company to clean up its act.

Jones has made several recommendations including the development of a comprehensive water quality-monitoring plan, a complete environmental audit of both the sugar factory and distillery, as well as an updated compliance plan.

A NEPA/WRA joint investigative team recently concluded that the organic contamination of rivers could be reasonably linked to a number of sources including the seepage of dunder applied to the fields into the ground water. Other identified causes could be: sewage from soak-away-pits, wastewater from the sugar factory, waste from the rum distillery and nearby aquaculture installations; and possible contamination from the improperly stored baggasse, which is used to fire the furnace at the sugar factory. Greenaway agreed with the team’s finding.

The construction of a wastewater treatment plant and a high-tech monitoring system to provide warnings of pollution incidents should have been up and running by September, but has not yet been installed.

Many believe that Appleton will simply be allowed to carry on fouling the Black River given the economic and political influence its owners have.

Appleton earns billions in export earnings for Jamaica in both sugar and rum manufacturing and exports. It provides thousands of jobs for Jamaicans both inside the traditional agricultural communities in St. Elizabeth and at its bottling and distributions hubs -- rum is also the most profitable part of a sugar industry that employs more than 50,000 Jamaicans directly and indirectly.

Without an environmental permit the ferti-irrigation project must end. But while the NRCA ponders, a new sugar cane season has started and residents are bracing for the worst.

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS-Inter Press Service and IFEJ-International Federation of Environmental Journalists.)

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