Looking at environmental aspects of Stake Bank Project during REEF WEEK

The Oceana website says the objective of Reef Week, an annual celebration of all things marine started by the organization in 2013, is “to raise awareness of the pivotal role the Barrier Reef plays in Belizean lives and livelihood.” The Stake Bank Project is of substantial concern in relation to the reef. Our observation is that this project will need special monitoring by the authorities, for the protection of the environment and the good of all involved.

Most Belizeans have welcomed the Stake Bank project because it will inject a sizable amount of capital into our economy, the estimates ranging from US$50 million to US$82 million when all the phases of the project are complete. Most of the investment will go toward purchases of raw materials and rental of mining equipment from abroad, but a sizable number of jobs will be created for Belizeans, both during the construction phase and when the enterprise is up and running. The developers expect the facility to be opened for business sometime in 2020.

It is reported that the Stake Bank Project is primarily owned by Belizeans, the Feinstein Group, and it is the largest project to come on stream in our country with a Belizean being the controlling shareholder. Mr. Mike Feinstein, the major shareholder, has said that there are international investors and the arrangements are being handled by the Atlantic Bank in Belize. The Belize Government is fully behind the project. The Government passed the STAKE BANK CRUISE DOCKING FACILITY DEVELOPMENT (AMENDMENT) ACT 2017, a 25-year agreement that allows the Group certain tax incentives, some limited to the development phase of the project and some over the life of the agreement, and the sharing of a head tax to be levied on cruise tourists who enter the facility.

Stake Bank, where most of the project is located, is a 21-acre, largely manmade mangrove island about four miles east of Belize City. Much of the island’s foundation is made of ballast (bricks, stones, etc.) dumped from sailing ships that came to Belize for cargo, and logs for export that broke free and sank into the mud. The Feinstein Group’s website said Stake Bank Island will have “a deep water cruise port capable of hosting an impressive four voyager-class cruise ships at any given time…will provide visitors high quality services and amenities including a marina, shops, restaurants and other entertainment venues…an independent entertainment and shopping area for cruise crew members and an exciting Mayan-themed water park.”

There is also another project envisioned by the Group, Ocean View Grand. The Group says this project will be “on the 538-acre island of North Drowned Caye, 2.5 miles offshore from Belize City.” This will have “exclusive single family beachfront estates and homes, lakefront multi-family units and marina condos… boutique hotel and spa…a beach hotel, beach club and casino conference center… 200 boat slips and dry-stack facilities.” The Group said “Stake Bank and Ocean View Grand will be connected to each other via a vehicular causeway and another causeway will connect Ocean View Grand to the mainland.” At the grand launch of the project a couple weeks ago, the causeway linking Grand Ocean View to the mainland was not included. But even without that, by our standards this is a massive project. These islands, Stake Bank and Drowned Cayes, are swamps, so a never-before-seen in Belize scale of dredging will have to be done to fill them, and when the project is up and running there will be major issues with handling of wastes.

We have seen the 2006 Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) done on a somewhat smaller project,US$25 million, involving the same Stake Bank Island. A significant amount of mangroves, habitat for marine life and birds, will be lost to the project. But the experts say we can absorb that.

In its present state, with just one cabin, the researchers found that there was a relatively high concentration of E.coli around Stake Bank Island. The EIA stated: “The possibility of these bacteria coming from marine traffic and human settlement should not be ruled out [Pers. comm.., G. Myvett]. Given that there has not been any historical human habitation of Stake Bank it would be likely that these microflora are not derived from the caye: The cruise ships which are berthed in the vicinity of the caye cannot be ruled out as a potential source of E. coli [Pers. comm.., G. Myvett]. The values recorded by the Tunich (a group of environmental experts) are significantly in excess of national standards: Thus the beaches that are an integral part of the proposed development are not to be bathing beaches.”

The time when the sampling of the water was done is critical. In our “winter” months, which is the peak of the cruise tourism season, contaminants in the water around Belize City would be taken by the seasonal westerly winds all the way out to Stake Bank. However, beaches on the east side of the sister Ocean View project shouldn’t have problems with water quality at any time of the year. The massive increase in physical structures and human activity should put the ecosystem here under great pressure. In the project envisioned in 2006, the EIA estimated 14,000 tourists and 3,600 crew members landing on Stake Bank, with 15% staying on the island. The enterprise was expected to hire 375 full-time staff. The 2006 Stake Bank project, expected to cater to over 2,000 tourists per day, was expected to generate 28,074 gallons of gray water and sewer water per day, and 39,235 pounds of solid waste per week. The gray water and sewer water were to be stored in prefabricated tanks, where they would undergo a process, after which the water would be re-used for flushing toilets and irrigation. Any excess would be monitored before being dumped into the sea. Organic solid waste would be composted on the island and used to fertilize plants, while inorganic solid waste would be transported to a dumping site on the mainland.

The EIA mentioned three dredging operations associated with the project, one for a “domestic luxury yacht marina”, one for the excavation of lagoons and waterways for “water rides of the proposed theme park”, and the third is for the dredging of an access channel which would significantly shorten “the time for the ships to reach their anchorage and consequently the time for passengers to disembark.” The first two projects called for the excavation of 1,000 cubic yards of material, while the access channel called for the excavation of 2.66 million cubic meters of material. The argument for the access channel is that it would cut down the transit time to Stake Bank by 2-3 hours. The EIA experts measured a distance savings of 10.2 km, if the access channel is cut in an area near the buoy at Water Caye, on a straight line to Stake Bank. The present roundabout route which goes down to Robinson’s Point and then back up to Stake Bank, is 18.8 km. From our experience the actual time savings would be about an hour and a half. That is quite substantial for a cruise tourist who is only here for a day.

The material excavated would be used as fill for Stake Bank. The EIA said that it is important for this dredging to be done “during the warmer months… when the prevailing winds are from the east and southeast”, so that “the wind-driven effects of the surface current” would deflect the sediments to the west, “towards the mainland and away from the barrier reef.” We did not hear mention of the access channel during the ceremonies, but when we consider the advantages that brings to the project we have to believe it’s a part of the package or will be done later. The EIA said the access channel is to be 150 meters wide, 8.97 km long, with 8.4 km of that 8.97 km needing “to be dredged to the requisite 12 m depth.”

Stake Bank and Drowned Cayes are part of one of the most productive lobster flats in our country, running from San Pedro all the way down to Cay Glory, and beyond. This area will be impacted negatively, particularly if the guidelines set by the Department of the Environment (DoE) are not adhered to. It is a fact in our country that our technical experts at the DoE make great recommendations, but there is insufficient monitoring.

Santander dug a canal across the Jaguar Corridor and DoE didn’t find out about it until the deed had been done. The sand islands in the Belize River, between Roaring Creek and Teakettle, have been decimated, when they should have been mined sustainably. The decimation of the sand islands has impacted severely on at least one species, the iguana. It’s on the sand islands that they lay their eggs, and it is the sand islands that give their young a greater chance for survival. They are but two of many examples of poor supervision.

The Stake Bank Island project comes on stream at a time when our nation is desperate for an injection of capital. A lot of Belizeans are hopeful for this project. This area is fragile and so it will need special monitoring. The EIA experts have pointed out what needs to be done. But the DoE never seems to have the capacity, the finances, to do the critical supervising. It must be done, for the good of this project, and for the environment.

Amandala