By Raffique Shah
June 02, 2010
‘IT would be foolish of the new government to simply abandon all projects started or even planned by the PNM regime. But we have a mandate from the people to immediately take action on some of their billion-dollar plants and plans. I believe the people voted against the Alutrint smelter at La Brea. They voted against Mr Colm Imbert’s rapid rail. They voted against ex-prime minister Patrick Manning’s offshore Otaheite industrial island.
‘I think I can safely say, though, that my colleagues and I, after examining these projects and later consulting with the people, will stop those that will cost taxpayers whopping sums and bring little value, not to add much harm, to the country. But it’s early days yet…we’ll act responsibly…that much I can say.’
Without committing himself, and not wanting to go on record last week, a People’s Partnership source close to the Cabinet spelt out some broad plans to the Business Express.
Noting that these were his personal views, he added: ‘On the PNM platform, Mr Manning vowed to expand the country’s heavy industry base. In our case, our leader said, among other references to continuing industrialisation, ‘No smelter.’ So I think we shall move in another direction. We are committed to building a sustainable economy from which the majority of people, not just a few, will benefit.’
So what PNM mega-projects are likely to fall to the new government’s axe?
Site of Alutrint’s smelter plant at La Brea.
Start with the aluminium smelter.
While the adjacent 240-megawatts electricity generating plant is currently under construction, the US$500 million-plus smelter is yet to get off the ground, stymied by final EMA approvals.
The anti-smelter lobby successfully challenged the EMA’s provisional CEC before the High Court sometime last year.
The People’s Partnership vowed on its platform to change the EMA to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
One source said the new government may opt to continue with the power generation plant.
‘It may make sense to proceed with that and integrate it into the national electricity grid. In fact, we could even consider expanding its capacity from 240 megawatts to 400 megawatts. That would compensate for eventual closure of the Port of Spain generating plant that has a capacity of around 320 megawatts, but is obsolete. Instead of constructing a new plant in the capital city, this La Brea plant could meet the country’s immediate and future electricity requirements.’
The Alutrint project has several very powerful and strategically important ‘partners’ as part of the joint-venture.
China, for example, has provided the ‘soft loan’ capital (US$400 million through its Exim Bank) and the building contractor.
The latter has insisted on using Chinese labour, with minimal jobs for locals.
China is among the emerging global superpowers, and no Trinidad and Tobago government would want to sour relations with Beijing.
Last December, months after Venezuela’s Sural withdrew as an investor in the project, one of Brazil’s leading aluminium companies, Votorantim Metais, signed an MOU with Alutrint to ‘take up the slack’.
Brazil is fast emerging as the powerhouse of South America, a country with which we’d want to have good relations.
How the new government would wiggle its way out of the smelter plant without breaching contracts the last PNM government would have signed, and without offending China and Brazil, would be a diplomatic challenge.
The rapid rail, the single most expensive project conceived by the PNM government, seems destined to the dustbin.
Although the last government has already expended some $300 million on preliminary studies and designs, the new People’s Partnership government may prefer to write off that sum rather than pursue a $15 billion-plus project.
The PP seems sold on the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) alternative that is substantially cheaper and, combined with other modes of public transport (like maxi-taxis), will deliver similar commuter service.
But, said our source, the PP is likely to expand the water taxi service that was initiated by the PNM government last year.
Another billion-dollar project that will come under the People’s Partnership microscope is the recently signed contract between Israeli firm Merhav Mekorot and WASA.
New Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar warned WASA and the PNM against signing any such contract-said to be worth more than $1.3 billion-on the eve of general election.
WASA chairman Dr Shafeek Sultan-Khan and PNM spokespeople said the contract was signed after more than a year of negotiations.
Frontline PP people have noted that Mekorot is not the only company in the world with the expertise WASA says it has.
Then there are the many ports being in some stage of planning and construction as the new government takes office.
According to the most recent information from the Ministry of Energy, ‘The port will have two berths measuring 100 metres in length and four berths measuring 85 metres.’
The NEC also plans to construct a fish landing facility to complement the area’s fishing industry. Facilities for the Coast Guard Southern Command Centre are also to be constructed.
‘The contract for the design and construction of the facility was awarded to the joint venture of Grandi Lavori Fincosit Construction Corporation (GLF) and Jan de Nul. The latter will undertake all dredging and reclamation works. The company finalised and submitted the port development design concepts which were reviewed by NEC’s board. The Environmental Impact Assessment was completed by the consultants Coastal Dynamics and submitted to the EMA in September.’
The most controversial of these is the planned port for Claxton Bay. Residents and environmental activists, many of whom are strong supporters of the PP, have protested against this facility (officially called the Point Lisas East and South Port) for more than two years.
The NEC, which is the executing agency for most of these ports and energy-related plants, continues to conduct preparatory work for what was originally intended to be a nine-berth port, now cut to two berths (in the first phase).
Up to a few weeks ago fishermen of the Claxton Bay district protested barges still operating in the area intended for the port.
Since this port is linked directly with the Essar steel mill, and given that the Indian conglomerate seems to have abandoned plans for the mill, the new government may question its viability and its environmental impact on fishing in that part of the Gulf of Paria.
Another mega-project that will most likely be dumped by a PP government is the reclaimed ‘island’ off Otaheiti, officially called the Oropouche Bank Off-Shore Reclamation.
This 1,400 hectare island, which Mr Manning promised he would build should his party return to power, will be located 3.5 km from the Otaheiti coastline.
The NEC says: ‘This site will allow for large scale cluster of gas based industries. The seaward side is adjacent to natural deep water for development of post-panamax harbour. Design services were invited in 2006 for Development Plans, Dredging and Reclamation Designs, Preliminary Infrastructure Designs, EIA and obtaining of CEC.’ Four years later, the project remains a concept that may never come to fruition under a PP government.
Among other major projects that are likely to be reviewed is the eTeck Tamana Park.
‘The concept of the park seems to be good,’ our source said. ‘It’s the way eTeck and its associated agencies are run that must come under scrutiny. We are not against development…how can we be? But they must add value to what is already on the ground, they must be executed in a transparent manner, and most important, they must bring no further harm to our people from an environmental standpoint.’