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Past time for Government to act on Belco

Time to act: Walter Roban, Deputy Premier and David Burt, Premier (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

The plight of the neighbours of Belco represents a failure of two of Bermuda’s leading institutions.

Worse, it represents a failure of humanity and compassion, by both the Bermuda Electric Light Company and the Government.

Bermuda’s size means there always will be the need for industrial areas to be located near residential areas.

Where in larger countries power plants, ports, slaughterhouses, incinerators and manufacturers may be and miles away from densely populated areas, Bermuda residents must often accept a different reality.

Those who do live near industrial areas are entitled to be treated with respect and dignity.

For decades now, Belco’s neighbours have put up with pollution of various kinds. Belco, for the most part, has been a reasonable neighbour, painting roofs and testing water. That is as it should be.

But recent events have been different. Several years ago, Belco began planning for a new power station and decided liquefied natural gas was its preferred fuel because it was cleaner than oil and cheaper as well.

Since then, gas has increased in price, but it would still have been cleaner. The Regulatory Authority took that into account but considered that the need for entirely new infrastructure ran a greater risk of cost overruns and would also have slowed down the drive to largely carbon free power generation by 2035. Therefore it rejected LNG in favour of the use of fuel oils in the short term.

As a result, Belco then had to adapt a plant designed to use gas so that it could function with oil instead. In theory, the North Power Station was always designed to burn both fuels, but burning oil has proved to be vastly worse for the surrounding residents, who have experienced soot fallout and other air pollution, which is graver than anything that came before.

Belco, to its credit, has spent millions of dollars trying to fix the problem. But it has not worked. Other possible solutions have been advanced, but have not been adopted.

The reason all of this has come to light is, quite simply, because of the determined advocacy of the residents, who have had to overcome considerable resistance to be heard.

Now at last, helped — and this is not said with any desire for credit — by some detailed and meticulous reporting by this newspaper, public authorities are starting to pay attention.

But as ever, it is too little, too late. And what is shocking about this is that some of the same people who are expressing horror at what has happened are the very people — the only people — who can do something about it.

Walter Roban has described the situation as intolerable. Mr Roban is the minister responsible for the environment, and the person who can drive new clean-air regulations and who can find ways to make Belco do the right thing. His own constituents in Pembroke East are not far from Belco.

Jason Hayward has called for residents to be provided with free power until the problem is solved. Mr Hayward, the MP for Pembroke Central, is the Minister of Economy and Labour, one of the most powerful people in the Cabinet.

David Burt said in 2020 that it was “crystal clear” that Belco must do more to address the concerns of residents, adding: “In this instance, where there is actual evidence of things being deposited into their water tanks, and fumes going into people’s houses, the fact is that painting roofs and cleaning tanks is not enough.”

Not only are these MPs Cabinet ministers with responsibility for the health and welfare of the whole community, along with Michael Weeks, the national security minister and Pembroke East Central MP, they are government MPs for the area surrounding Belco.

And yet, despite this concentration of power, they have failed to act effectively on behalf of their constituents.

All could have brought pressure to bear on Belco. Several, including Mr Roban and Mr Burt, could have acted directly.

Mr Roban has promised new clean-air regulations. These are rightly described as complex. Yet this does not mean they could not be advanced faster if Mr Roban made them the top priority of his ministry.

Similarly, The Royal Gazette’s own reporting has shown that if the major reason for Belco not to adopt a cleaner burning fuel is that it would be passed on to the consumer, Mr Burt could mitigate this problem by reducing the customs duty on the fuel cost.

As finance minister, Mr Burt reduced the cost of gasoline when fuel prices soared a year ago. Then, he acted independently.

In the case of Belco, the finance ministry says it will consider a proposal to reduce the duty in the event that Belco uses a more environmentally friendly fuel. But it was left to Belco to apply and Belco has given no indication it intends to.

It goes without saying that Belco should be a good corporate citizen and do everything it can to solve the problem.

But in the event it does not, the obligation is on the Government to act. Kim Wilson, the health minister, has the first opportunity to do this — again, as reported by The Royal Gazetteby declaring it a public nuisance. But the rest of the Cabinet can and should act as well. But they have not.

It will have escaped no one’s notice that their former Cabinet colleague and fellow MP, Wayne Caines, is the president and chief executive of Belco.

Like it or not, the Government’s failure to act — no matter now legitimate the reasons — will give rise to the suspicion that this is motivated at least in part by a desire not to embarrass a fellow MP.

Perhaps that in itself is not a good reason to act, but politically — and Mr Burt is nothing if not an astute reader of the political winds — the Progressive Labour Party’s inaction, and the harm it is doing to people the party purports to speak for, is becoming more damaging by the day.

It is time to act.

This editorial was edited to reflect that the Regulatory Authority rejected the use of liquefied natural gas because of concerns over the cost of the infrastructure and the desire to get to a largely carbon free power generation by 2035.

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Published March 22, 2023 at 8:00 am (Updated March 22, 2023 at 2:47 pm)

Past time for Government to act on Belco

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