Orange Walk Residents are Concerned of the New River Conditions
If you love swimming, fishing, or some other water sport, you probably have a favorite body of water you remember fondly as a child. If your favorite spot is a river near your neighborhood, then you'll definitely be able to identify with our story featuring a group of residents from Orange Walk Town.
They say that the New River is not the same pristine natural beauty that it once was about 20 or 25 years ago. They say that in recent years, the water appears to have become polluted, and they don't exactly know what is causing it.
And more than lack of recreational opportunities, if the New River is polluted, it raises serious public health concerns for those residents who live near it.
This morning, a group of Sugar City locals took the media on a boat ride to different parts of the river most negatively affected. They are trying to bring public pressure on the Department of Environment to investigate what is happening.
7News went on the trip, and Daniel Ortiz reports:
This is the New River, a few miles from Orange Walk Town itself. What you’re seeing is the colour and texture that residents of Orange Walk have come to know it when it is at its cleanest.
As you get closer to the town, the river’s consistency starts to change, from that light grayish-green hue to a more milky green colour.
Closer to the town, the river’s water also loses its natural translucency, and it gets murky, as if the water is getting more muddy and turbid.
Giovanni De La Fuente - Concerned Resident "We went upstream for a couple miles where we clearly noticed that the colour of the river changed and then we started coming back down stream and we encountered this milky green situation."
Now, to a non-scientist who has no prior knowledge of how the river normally looks, that person would see these contrasts and not be alarmed.
For several experienced residents of Orange Walk, though, the negative changes in the consistency of the waters of the New River are cause for great concern.
Errol Cadle - Tour Guide, Lamanai Eco Tours "I’ve been travelling this river since 1981, I was 13 years old travelling the river for years, in and out around the month like March, April, May. We noticed discoloration in the water, the stench in the water and fish start floating around in the area. Because this year we are having a drought in the country of Belize we notice it's a lot worse than we have seen in many years. For at least 3 months now the river has been really bad. I've travelled up and down this river, I like to do fishing a lot in this area. You won't see the tarpons rolling anymore, you don't even see the crocodiles in this area, it's really bad."
The discoloration and the lack of wildlife that use to make these parts of the river their habitat leads these concerned residents to believe that its contamination levels are high.
Ian Cal - Deputy Mayor, Orange Walk Town "We have never seen the river the way it is this year. It started to happen about 2 months ago where we started to see the colour of the river changing then milky substance floating on top of the river and then it comes along with the stench. We have gotten the concern because as you know, as local government, everybody comes to the town council to ask questions or try to find out what is being done about the entire issue. So we have been getting those concerns, especially about the stench of the river and the wildlife that lives around the river. If you notice on the boat ride and two weeks about it was much worse. Anything that this water touches, even the water lilies, the fish are dying, the plants are dying. So it's something that is in this river that is killing the wildlife and even the flora and fauna. So we have to find out exactly where this is coming from and what is causing it. Like I said it happens every year but this year it is much worse."
There is a lot of speculation that this is actually pollution of the water, and there are even fingers being pointed at certain corporate entities that call Orange Walk their home.
These residents say that they simply want answers, and they wanted them from the Department of Environment, who should be monitoring the quality of these important waterways.
Giovanni De La Fuente "A lot of people are casting aspersion and blame and they say oh it's this one, oh it's that one. I am not here to cast blame on anyone other than the Department of Environment. I am here to represent the thousands of people citizens living in Orange Walk Town and Corozal Town and the 10 settlements along the way. I am here to represent the thousands of people that are using this very same river to access water. In this time and age, can you imagine an entire population of a town receiving water from this situation? Our pumps in Orange Walk Town are very close to the river."
Errol Cadle "I’d like the Department of the Environment to do their job, to come in and seek out the culprits because that's their job, they should be doing it. They should be thinking about a healthy river for the people of Orange Walk. You have to realize we do get water for our pumps and faucets to bathe from this area and we haven't been hearing anything coming from the government. You come here on Sundays you will notice there is many different place alongside the banks of the river, I own a little sports bar, Bat's Landing and there's Maracas, there are many other places alongside the banks of the river where people want to come and recreate on Sunday. Many kids, as a kid I use to come and swim in this river for many years, today you are afraid of just touching the water.”
Giovanni De La Fuente "They need to address this situation and address the people of Orange Walk Town so that we can know what's going on. Is the water safe? Should we consume the fish? Once we have done that then I believe other pressure groups should step up and light a big fire under the department's seat so that the department could identify who is the culprit, if there is a culprit because there is always the possibility that it's a natural cause right."
As noted in our story, there is a group of companies that these concerned residents want the DOE to investigate as possible offenders, whose wastewater could be leaking into the New River.
We reached out to one of those companies for comment, and via email, that company told us that it, quote, "places great value on being an environmentally-conscious and responsible corporate citizen." End quote.
The company's statement continues, quote, "Through our partnership with the Department of the Environment (DOE), we continue to monitor the river, through internal and external mechanisms regularly, as is required under our Environmental Compliance Plan (ECP)." End quote.
Reliable sources tell us that if there is contamination of the water, one source could be the town's own wastewater seeping into the river. We are told that Orange Walk does not have a sewage system that could completely insulate against that.
We intend to seek the DOE out for comment on the state of this river.
New River’s Health Declining; Residents Call on D.O.E. To Take Action A boat ride up the New River in Orange Walk shows large scale stagnation and discoloration of the waters along a seventeen-mile stretch from the villages of Carmelita to Trial Farm. The condition of the river, which is a main source of income up north, has deteriorated to a point that it has become lifeless primarily due to the lack of rain this year and dumping. Wildlife has been impacted and fish kills are reported even as residents endure the stench of the unhealthy river. This morning, the media was invited to get a first-hand view of how bad the situation really is. Residents are calling out the Department of the Environment to find a solution to the problem. News Five’s Hipolito Novelo reports.
Re: New River Water Getting Milky Green
#537663 08/07/1905:07 AM08/07/1905:07 AM
Last night, we took you on a tour on the sickly green waters of the New River in the Orange Walk District.
Environmentally conscious residents say that the river is in the worst state that they've seen it, and they are worried that it is polluted. Well, we've since been able to confirm with the CEO in the Ministry of Environment, Percival Cho that indeed, it is polluted.
But who's the culprit? At this time, the technicians at the Department of Environment aren't that clear. They believe that there are multiple sources of pollution for the river, including town residents.
Some point fingers at sugar industry giant, ASR/BSI. And, as part of yesterday's media tour, the organizers took us to a part of the river that is near to the BSI's Tower Hill facility. That's where we captured this footage of water from the facility being drained off into the river.
Yesterday, BSI/ASR said, quote, "...we continue to monitor the river, through internal and external mechanisms regularly, as is required under our Environmental Compliance Plan (ECP)." End quote.
Cho told us that last week DOE technicians did conduct several tests, and they did a site visit at BSI.
He noted that in the New River, the water temperature is above the normally recommended range, while its oxygen content is below the recommended range, and its nutrient concentrations are higher than they are supposed to be. That creates the perfect environment for naturally occurring algae in the water to increase in what is known as "an algae bloom." When this happens, the rapidly reproducing algae decreases the river's oxygen content even further, and that causes marine life, such as the fish, to die.
Depending on the species of algae, it may release toxins into the water, which could further make the river unsafe. So, the DOE will conduct tests to find out which type of algae is currently blooming in the New River.
During last year's site visit at BSI, water temperature tests were conducted on the water coming out of the factory, and it was determined to be higher than the recommended threshold. And so, BSI was asked to cool down any water that they are releasing into the river.
Yesterday, the residents concerned about the state of the river also pointed fingers at other companies along the riverside as possible sources of pollution. Well, CEO Cho told us that the DOE personnel also suspect that certain resorts, restaurants and tortilla factories along the riverside have released unsafe effluent into the river. It has been also determined that certain drains that were built in the town to remove wastewater from households are also to blame for the nutrient pollution that is currently detected.
CEO Cho is recommending that the residents of Orange Walk should not eat any fish caught in the New River at this time. Because there are suspected to be multiple sources of pollution affecting the river, the DOE intends to address each one with the persons involved. The Department intends to hold a meeting with stakeholders in Orange Walk to make the point that if they want to see the water quality of the New River improve, they have to do a better job of safely discarding their wastewater.
New River Affected by Eutrophication; DOE says Sources include Industries
The New River in Orange Walk is being affected by eutrophication. It is the increase of nutrients in the river which has been causing the harmful algal blooms, discoloration, stagnation and the fish kills that have been reported. On Monday, the media was taken on a tour of the river where the negative impacts were observed. As the town’s residents would know, the New River is an economic driver and home to fauna and flora which have also been negatively affected. The purpose of the tour was also to demand that the problem be addressed by the Department of Environment. A few weeks ago, D.O.E. collected and tested water samples to determine the cause and source. The results are in and according to the C.E.O. in the Ministry of Fisheries, Environment and Sustainable Development, Doctor Percival Cho; many factors are contributing to eutrophication. Cho says that one of those factors is the pollution from several factories along the river bank.
On the Phone: Dr. Percival Cho, C.E.O., Ministry of Fisheries, the Environment and Sustainable Development
“What they found is that the river is being affected in more than one ways. The first one is that there is high nutrient content concentration in the waters. The nutrients that they tested for are nitrogen and I believe phosphorous as well. The other factor is that the water temperature is higher than normal. Also besides that there seems to be effluent running off the town as well as other establishments along the banks of the river. So that is also feeding in nutrients from waste water and other runoff. Then they tested in the water itself, they tested for oxygen and that is rather low. One of those factors are combining to produce this phenomena known as eutrophication so that is why the water looks green. The sources of course of this runoff, is like I said the town, establishments along the river, agriculture runoff into the river from agricultural lands upstream and then B.S.I. as well. Everybody is focusing on the B.S.I. component. Previously they had dealt with it with B.S.I., recommended some adjustments to the water that B.S.I. releases into the river which is of course treated and settled and so forth is put in to the river. The main concern back then was the temperature of the water that goes into the river and it was a bit high.”
DOE to Host Public Consultation on New River Problem
The establishments and factories that have been discharging effluents into the New River will be sent a letter containing corrective recommendations. An advisory will also be issued to the public, and according to Doctor Percival Cho, the aim is to host a public consultation sometime this week.
On the Phone: Dr. Percival Cho, C.E.O., Ministry of Fisheries, the Environment and Sustainable Development
“This time around they are coming up with different recommendation again to give to the industries along the river as well as to the general populace in the area as well as the town’s officials as well. They are compiling those and I think that they aim have some public consultation or some advisory sometime this week. They normally issue official letters to the industries or establishments that they have observed putting in some level of effluent into the river to make corrective recommendations. So that is what they normally do. So of course a letter forthcoming to the various parties that have been identified as the sources of the effluent.”
All this week, we've been telling you about the state of New River in the Orange Walk District, which passes near Orange Walk Town. Residents are concerned that its pollution levels are high, and the Department of Environment has confirmed that indeed it is. They are now instituting a plan of action to hopefully reduce the levels of that water pollution.
In a press release sent today, the DOE notes that they for some time now, they've established the Water Quality Monitoring Program on the New River. On July 19th, they collected data at 5 sites near the river, 4 between the Toll Bridge and the San Estevan Bridge, and one more near San Estevan Village. Those samples revealed several areas of concern that have negatively impacted this aquatic ecosystem. The DOE believes that what is happening at the New River is most likely called "eutrophication." That basically means that the river is experiencing nutrient pollution due to run-off from the land around it. The DOE says that at these 5 locations they tested, the nutrient levels are high, and there is an abnormal amount of sulfate in the river. Additionally, oxygen levels are low, and the experts are trying to determine if part of the cause is an algae bloom.
In the hopes of reducing the sources of pollution in and around Orange Walk Town, the DOE will meet with key industrial and commercial facilities near the riverbanks to discuss measures to protect the river.
The Belize Sugar Industry is one of those facilities. The DOE then stresses that they've worked with BSI over the recent years to improve their facility. The company has instituted many improvements, including the installment of a wastewater treatment system. There is a meeting scheduled with them to discuss additional corrective actions that must be put into place, to further protect the river, and to deal with the eutrophication that is currently occurring, quote, "At the point where their effluent is discharged." End quote.
The DOE then goes on to say that L&R Liquors, which is next to the sugar factory, has not discharged any effluent into the New River since mid-2017. At that time, the DOE approved a plan that discontinued the discharge of their wastewater into the river. The DOE will also collaborate with the Orange Walk Town Council and the Public Health Department to identify all other commercial activities along the New River, and they will conduct investigations on their wastewater discharge.
The DOE also has a long-term plan to restore the health of the New River. Their objective is to create a more comprehensive watershed management program.
The Department of the Environment (DOE) has an established Water Quality Monitoring Programme on the New River. Data collected on July 19, 2019, at five sites - four between the Toll Bridge and San Estevan Bridge and one near San Estevan Village - revealed several areas of concerns that negatively impact this aquatic ecosystem. The present situation is most likely eutrophication caused by several factors. The data shows that nutrient levels are high at these locations with sulphate showing a visible spike. Additionally, the dissolved oxygen levels are low and algae count is currently being analysed by the DOE, with all indicators suggesting a high count.
The northern districts of Belize are relatively flat which causes the New River to be characterized as a tidal river. This means that the flow of the river is affected, in terms of direction and speed, by the tides. The flow of the river is extremely slow giving solids, including organic substances, enough time to sink to the bottom, trapping contaminants such as heavy metal, pesticides, etc. entering the system. This phenomenon is critical to understand because any major shock to the river from runoff during the start of the rainy season or any medium or large boats traversing the system will stir up these contaminants which quickly changes water quality, affecting aquatic organisms. This is the main reason why every year, fish kills occur along critical areas of the river. Another major factor of the river is the lack of any flushing effect that would remove these contaminants.
The Way Forward
The DOE will meet with key industrial and commercial facilities along the New River to discuss measures to protect the river. The Belize Sugar Industry (BSI) is one of the main facilities. Over recent years, the DOE has been working closely with BSI, and as such, the company has instituted many improvements to their facility including their wastewater treatment system. The meeting scheduled with BSI/ASR is to discuss additional corrective actions that must be put in place to further protect the river and to deal with the eutrophication that is occurring at the point where their effluent is discharged.
L & R Liquors, which is next to the sugar factory has not discharged any effluent into the New River since mid-2017. In mid-2017, the DOE approved a plan that discontinued the discharge of wastewater into the river. The plan entailed the removal of the effluent by truck and treating it at an off-site location away from any surface and groundwater system and which is suitably sized to allow maximum retention and photo-oxidation.
The DOE will also collaborate with the Orange Walk Town Council and Public Health Department to identify all other commercial activities along the New River and conduct investigations of their wastewater discharge. Corrective actions will need to be put in place for each commercial activity, where necessary.
Development of a Long-Term Monitoring Programme
The DOE has discussed with key partners, the expansion of its current monitoring programme of the New River to a more comprehensive watershed management programme, which will include an assessment of all the discharge and abstraction points along the river, an assessment of all the commercial activities along the river and identification of areas of concern from agricultural runoff, etc. The management programme will also include a long-term water quality monitoring programme, including pesticides residue, heavy metals correlated with climatic data such as monthly rainfall, tidal variations, etc. The result of the monitoring programme will assist with the identification of other critical issues that must be addressed.
Re: New River Water Getting Milky Green
#537769 08/15/1905:27 AM08/15/1905:27 AM
UDP and PUP must be blamed for the pollution of New River and all the other rivers, lakes and streams in our country
When I was a police officer in Belize, I was sent to Orange Walk District in 1974 to be stationed there. P.C. 308 Daniel Cacho, who retired as an inspector, and myself founded the Police Boys Club. We used to take the members of the club camping at the Tower Hill Toll Bridge. We implemented a swimming training for our cadets at that site.
When we were finished, we stopped by Jim’s Cool Spot, a bar and restaurant in the area, to relax. A few of the cadets were complaining that their skins were itching, but I did not pay it much attention.
Sometime during that year or shortly thereafter, we were at the police station when a person came running and said; “Police, a girl who is Mr. Audinette’s daughter just slipped off the ferry and they have not seen her”.
We ran to the ferry, which was close to the police station, to see what was happening. Upon our arrival there, the people were screaming and crying on the ferry that leads to the San Estevan and Progresso villages.
P.C. Cacho and myself went back to the police station to put on our swimming clothes to look for her.
The New River was so black that we could not see anything while we were diving, looking for the drowned girl. I told P.C. Cacho that we should call off the search because it was getting too dark.
We then went back to the police station to plan our continued search for the body. We took out our speedboat from the police compound and began searching along the bank of the river all the way to Trial Farm village early the following morning.
Just before midday, as we were getting closer to Trial Farm village, we saw the body of the girl floating on the left side of the river. We picked up her body, put it in the boat and brought it to the Orange Walk Hospital morgue, which was across the street from the police station.
Two days after, I began to notice that my skin turned white, looking like alligator skin. I then went on a sick call to see Dr. Tembe. He said that it was because of some chemicals that are being dumped in the river by the Tower Hill Factory.
He gave me some cream lotion to put on my skin and I decided never to take back our cadets into that river for our swimming training. The following year we took our cadets to Progresso Village to conduct our swimming drills.
The company that owns the Tower Hill Factory, Tate & Lyle, have been dumping their chemical waste into the New River for years now. The PUP government, followed by the UDP, have never held them accountable, to my knowledge, for this environmental pollution.
Years ago the same thing that happened in Orange Walk District happened with the North Stann Creek River in Dangriga, where I am from. Our people were drinking the water and they started to get sick from it, only to find out that the citrus companies in Salada and Pomona were both doing the same thing that was being done by the Tate & Lyle sugar factory in Orange Walk.
The PUP and UDP governments have passed minimal environmental laws in Belize that are ignored by these companies. Plus, their enforcement mechanism is weak and laughable. The people in Belize are not aware of all the environmental pollution that is taking place in our country. The end result is that our plants, animals and citizens are getting sick and dying from these environmentally hazardous materials.
There may be many other environmental hazards that the government is hiding from us. As citizens, we have the right to demand to know what they are, for our own safety and protection. It is now time for the people of Belize to take these environmental hazards seriously and demonstrate their disgust and anger at these companies to the government of Belize.
The government is not going to do anything unless we, the people, apply pressure on them to do something.
The government is working with the companies by being complacent and not enforcing the environmental laws against them. If we vote for these same two political parties to go back into power, who are friends of these polluters, nothing will change. Our plants, animals, people and the environment will just continue to suffer the consequences of their polluting, which is to get sick and die.
A Socio-Ecological Study of Impacts from Pollution to the New River Belize Central America
During the week of July 22, 2019 Dr. Kristin Drexler and graduate student, Mariana Jimenez with American Public University, with faculty from Muffles Jr. College, Mr. Omar Castillo and Mr. Carlos Tun, conducted a study on the New River. They were joined by a group of concerned citizens from Orange Walk.
Dzuilinicob river by Orange walk known as the New River . This is how it looks today. Worst today the river is going upriver backwards is a major concern. Pollution has passed Guinea Grass.
Photo Courtesy Belize Yucatec Maya
Re: New River Water Getting Milky Green
#537879 08/21/1911:20 AM08/21/1911:20 AM
Friends of The New River Belize write "A resident from the Tower Hill area sent us these photos taken earlier today upriver from the Tower Hill bridge -- a massive fish kill. The foul smell is affecting quality of life and businesses along the river. This is heart wrenching to watch, but shows that while the river may have cleared up downstream from the bridge, the problem still persists -- our New River is suffering"
Re: New River Water Getting Milky Green
#537917 08/24/1905:24 AM08/24/1905:24 AM
Orange Walk townspeople are getting ready right now, because in less than an hour, the Department of Environment will be hosting a public consultation in that northern town to discuss the plight of the New River.
Since the beginning of the month, the frustrations of the conservation-minded Orange WalkeÃ±os have been building, to the point where things may become very contentious at the public consultation.
But, now it's not just the conservation minded; there's widespread public consternation and outrage because huge volumes of dead fish are floating up at the water's edge.
It's stinking up communities alongside the river and causing widespread concern about how sick and polluted the river truly is.
One of the communities hardest hit by the foul odor of the dead fish is Tower Hill, which is almost annexed to Carmelita. Yesterday, and this morning, concerned residents have been working through the stench to clean up and remove as much of the dead fish as they can.
Elodio Aragon Jr., the Area Representative for Orange Walk East, was with the villagers of Tower Hill today, and he called for immediate action by the Department of Environment:
Hon. Elodio Aragon Jr. - Area Rep., Orange Walk East "As far as I know, the villagers have been complaining here in Tower Hill in regards to the massing stench that is out here. And of course, if you look around you'll see a lot of fishes floating in the water. This is terrible in terms that they have never experienced this situation for, I think, as far as I could remember. And I think this has a direct relation in terms of what is happening with the river. All the kind of stagnation, and the - what would I call it - the pollution of the river. So, it is a major concern, especially for the residents of Tower Hill."
Fidencio Vellos - Resident, Tower Hill Village "It's very unfortunate that at this point in time, here in Tower Hill, that we're facing a major major problem, a major negative impact of chemicals in the water. And as you can see just behind me, how much dead fish we have. We have tonnes and tonnes of fish that have been removed yesterday. And today, we need to remove all of this fish again, because it's making the entire community smell extremely bad. And this is the first time that things like this have happened in our area."
Roque Quijano - Chairman, Tower Hill Village "It's something that we've been going through every year. But this year, it's a totally different scenario, and it's been worst, due to the fact that we haven't been having any rain."
Saving the New River is saving our Great Barrier Reef
Our wonderful New River has been the victim of corporate savagery during the past 52 years since 1967 when Tate and Lyle/BSI (Belize Sugar Industries) began sugar milling operations at Bound-to-Shine, now known as Tower Hill.
Victims have been the wildlife and people whose sustenance/livelihood depends on the New River: the communities of Chan Pine Ridge, Tower Hill, Carmelita, Guinea Grass, to name only a few.
BRIEF HISTORY To talk of the New River is to talk about our very rich history: (1) It was an ancient Maya trading route of the Maya, then named Dzuilhuinicob (River of Strange People, River of Foreigners). Trade came from the highlands of present-day Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, via the New River, to the lowlands in the Yucatan and as far away as Teotihuacan in the valley of Mexico, about 30 miles outside Mexico City. (I have been there).
(2) Not only the Maya used the New River. The Spanish and the English used it, and modern-day tourists use the New River to enjoy our ancient history. (3) In 1618, two Franciscan friars named Bartolome de Fuensalida and Juan de Orbita used the New River to go to Lamanai to establish Spanish churches in a failed attempt to try and convert the Maya to Catholicism.
(4) In the 1600s, 1700s and parts of the 1900s, the English used the New River when they were extracting exotic tropical woods (mahogany, cedar, zericote, sapodilla, rosewoods, logwoods/dyewoods, etc, that were floated down the river out to the sea to Belize City to be chipped in blocks for export all over Europe.
(5) Since 1967, billions of US dollars and Euros have floated over the river in the form of sugar.
(6) Since 1986, when Lamanai was opened to the public, hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world use the New River when they go to Lamanai to enjoy our ancient history. Millions will do so in the foreseeable future.
DEATH OF NEW RIVER WILL NEGATIVELY IMPACT BELIZE Very few people know that the New River is one of the most unique river systems of Central America. Prior to 1967, with the advent of Tate and Lyle/BSI (Belize Sugar Industries), the waters of the New River were the most clean, clear, beautiful and pristine river system of Central America. Prior to 1986, almost nobody in Belize would have imagined the great economic impact the New River would have on the Belizean economy via tourism, with both overnight and cruise ship visitors flocking to Lamanai in record numbers weekly.
A tour to Lamanai is an exhilarating experience. Visitors marvel at the beauty of the river, and the excitement increases the more they travel up the river with each new turn and bend. It’s like being on a roller coaster ride. The New River is perhaps the only river system in Central America that defies gravity, because it flows from south (down) going up (north). Because of the face of the earth, rivers tend to flow from north to south, east to west, west to east and every place in between. The New River defies that gravitational convention.
Unlike other river systems in Belize that are mountain-fed from the highlands, the New River is spring-fed from underneath. This is one of the reasons that when it rains in the highlands, we never see dead trees, broken branches, logs, garbage or debris floating down the river as I have seen on the Belize Old River when I do Altun Ha/ river tours during the rainy season.
NEW RIVER IS ABOUT HIGH KNOWLEDGE An effective tour of the New River/Lamanai is loved by nature lovers, sun worshipers and archaeology buffs because many (academic) disciplines come into effect: (1) Maya history and culture; (2) Maya archaeology, because of the stones that tell us their tales; (3) epigraphy (the science of glyph reading) because of the wonderful Stella 9 at Lamanai that depicts a Lamanai ruler in full royal regalia, accompanied by a hieroglyphic text that bears a calendar text and a political proclamation; (4) botany, because of the great amount of orchids, bromeliads, palms, medicinal plants and trees that are on the banks of the river; (5) zoology, because of the array of animal life that can be seen, which includes river otters (locally known as water dogs), iguanas, jaguars, tapirs, deer, crocodiles, turtles, bats, and other wildlife seen on the New River; (6) ornithology, because of the abundance of bird life that depend on the river for their livelihood. These include, but are not limited to, jabiru storks, tiger herons, purple gallinules, northern jacanas, to name a few.
AN EXTINCT FISH ON THE NEW RIVER As a young boy in the 1960s going to school at La Inmaculada RC School here in Orange Walk Town, I learned to swim and dive, without a mask in the pristine waters of the New River. On Saturdays I used to go and fish at the BEC (Belize Estate Company) wharf. I remember a fish I used to like and admire which is now extinct, known in the books as Needle-nosed Fish, locally known as “Long Guard”.
TWO SUGAR FACTORIES, TWO RIVER SYSTEMS In a straight line, the BSI/ASR sugar factory and the Ingenio Obregon sugar factory in the state of Quintana Roo in southern Mexico are less than 20 miles apart. Each sugar factory has a river near it — the New River by BSI/ASR and the proud Rio Hondo near to Ingenio Obregon. Every year since 1967 to 2019 (that’s 52 years), the New River gets polluted. That’s been during Tate and Lyle/BSI, and now with BSI/ASR, it has gotten worse. This year BSI/ASR has savaged the New River with its worst
On Friday's news, we told you about the public consultation that the Department of Environment was hosting for the residents of Orange Walk to discuss the very worrisome state of the New River.
Currently, it is very polluted, and both citizens and scientists alike are concerned about the public health and environmental impacts it can have, given that fish and other marine animals that call it home are dying in mass numbers.
So, after the urgency of the situation was made publicly clear, the DOE decided that they wanted to talk to the people of the Orange Walk District face to face, to assure them that they are taking action to reverse the current state of the river.
Our news team was in Orange Walk Town for that conversation, and Daniel Ortiz reports:
Daniel Ortiz reporting
The Gala Lounge in Orange Walk Town was filled to near standing room only on Friday night when the Department of Environment hosted the Public Consultation for the New River.
Residents had witnessed its condition worsening for years, but more vividly over the last few months during the drought.
They now wanted to hear what the environmental authorities had to say about this important water body, what caused it to become polluted, how to fix it, and who is to blame.
Dr. Percival Cho - CEO, Ministry of Environment "We feel that there is a great need for clear and accurate information. There is a lot of scientific explanation to what we're seeing, and it's not just entirely pollution and someone - or an industry - is attempting to kill the river. There's a lot of science behind it, and we intend to provide that information to you tonight in the simplest form possible."
So, the loudest message delivered at the public consultation was that all human activities have contributed to the New River's contamination. Orange Walk residents living near it and those who conduct commercial or industrial activities close to its banks have, in some way, contributed to its current polluted state.
Dr. Ed Boles - Representative, DOE "The New River is again dominated by agriculture, so you begin to see, if you being to look at these 2 diagrams, you'll see how much agriculture really takes precedence on the western side of the river."
"Agriculture carries a lot of its own impacts. There's a lot of pesticide usage. There's aerial spraying. There are fertilizers, sediments and other things that are associated with agriculture."
"You see a stream system, for example, going through an agricultural field, and that stream system has been stripped of the riparian forest. The riparian forests are extremely important. That's the forest that lines the rivers. That's the's the filtration system of the landscape. And we're losing riparian forests, not only in Belize but throughout Belize at an alarming rate."
"There are several industries along the river, not just 1, but several and these are just the larger ones. There are also small industries that are along the river too, and all industries that are using water, processing foods, or processing chemicals of one kind, or another, eventually discharging that water back into the river."
"We also have a lot of urban areas around the system. If you look on a Google Earth map, you'll see these urban sites, clustered along the river bank. And typically, what happens is the riparian forests around these areas are being removed. And there are also storm drains that lead from urban areas into the river itself. And this is untreated water. And as storm waters are moving over urban landscapes, they're picking up fecal material from pets and livestock, from septic tanks, and other sources."
"Urban areas are kind of full psi of concentration of pollutants. And again, we have to kind of thin of our particular role in all of this."
"All of these different components begin to concentrate, and that's what's been happening over the years."
"Everybody that flushes a toilet. Everybody that uses resources, we're all contributors to that. So, if we really want to clean up the river, we've got to start with ourselves."
These concepts seemed easy enough to understand, but when one of the Environmental Officers presented the results of their recent water quality tests, the technical science behind it was oppressive and tough to follow as a normal layperson. Just listen to this excerpt.
Aldo Cansino - Environmental Officer "Phosphorus, you have in phosphorus, similarly, like nitrates, there's a particular range that you would expect to see in any healthy river system. You would have where you have 0.1 to 0.5. Anything above that, you're talking about -you're talking about inputs that can really affect the water body."
During the discovery of the New River's dire state, many fingers were being pointed at BSI, as the supposed biggest offender that's been polluting it. But, according to the DOE, the situation is not so simple for BSI.
Anthony Mai - Environmental Officer, DOE "We took water quality from 2 points, here and here, discharge, and discharge in the river. So, this is discharge coming directly out of the cooling ponds. Here, they are complying with the law. The temperature here, the law says that the wastewater must be at 35 degrees. When we tested it, it was at 37.8, 2.8 above what the law is saying. The PH, nitrates, phosphates, everything seems okay. But then, when you reach to the sulfates, the law says that they should discharge at 200. They are discharging at 524. Chemical oxygen demand, the law says that 200, they are 79 units above. But, look at what is very interesting. This is coming directly from BSI. This is the discharge into the river. The BOD is higher than what BSI is discharging."
"In terms of total suspended solids, it went up by 8.4 points. The temperature went down, obviously because it went through that cooling drain system. The PH remains okay, but then, the nitrates, phosphates, sulfates and chemical oxygen demand are all elevated. That means then, that the water quality is a little bit worse."
"Than this here. So it means that between here, here and something come here, there are somethings adding to the water."
While they continue to investigate the cause of pour water quality near to BSI's facility, the Department of Environment has come up with a course of action that they want to pursue, in an effort to help reduce the pollution pressure that Orange Walk Town places on the New River.
Anthony Mai - Environmental Officer, DOE "We met with the Orange Walk Town Council, and we got a list of the trade license holders, and there are some that we have identified that we need meet, discuss, and look at their wastewater management, and then help them, not charge them, not bring down the law on them, because our approach is to work with everyone. So, we want to sit with them, to help them to put the correct measures in place to protect the environment."
"So, all the different restaurants, the bars, the hotels, the corn tortilla factories, the poultry, the meat shops, the mechanic shops, we want to meet with these people. We want to ask them, what are you doing with your wastewater? And we'll say, let's work together to put something in place, so that your water doesn't go into the river, and if it goes into the river, it is treated, and it is proper."
OW Community Called Out DOE
So, that was the DOE's presentation to the residents who showed up on Friday night, and more than 2 hours later, the officials opened the floor for questions or comments from the attendees.
And, immediately, the residents made it clear that they were not satisfied with the answers that the environmental authorities had for them on the New River pollution.
Here are a few excerpts from that 80-minute exchange between the two sides:
Concerned Resident 1 "It was a good technical presentation, it looks like something is being hidden from us because of 31 years' experience on the river, I have seen that with the last few years when ASR took over BSI, and we have seen more damage on our river."
"For the first time, that contaminant has reached Guinea Grass, which has never happened, and I will take the environment for not looking into it. From Guinea Grass to Shipyard, they've been clearing a lot of land on the waterside. It specifically says 66 feet from the riverbank, no trees should be cut down. Who gave them permission? It's only the environment or natural resources."
Dorian Pakeman - Moderator "Sir, could you begin to wrap up, please? Could you begin to wrap up because you have more people who would like an opportunity as well?"
Concerned Resident 1 "Hold on. Hold on. You see I was under the environment. Actually, the environment was under us."
Dorian Pakeman "If you could just wrap please, get to the point."
Concerned Resident. "See that's the sad part is that you come to learn from us. If you were living in Orange Walk, then you'd realize. This is our river. But there are more questions than answers. And I believe that - I don't know if someone from ASR/BSI is in here. The Open Your Eyes - where is the Open Your Eyes?"
"What Environment has never realized is that when we call you, this pollution starts when it is Easter, on that Holy Thursday, Good Friday. That's when you see BSI starts to wash."
Anthony Mai - Environmental Officer, DOE "I like the fact that he highlights that the Department will definitely need to be more vigilant and visual in looking at the agricultural activities up by Shipyard and that entire area. I agree with you."
Concerned Resident 2 "I am very much concerned because of the problems that we're facing at Tower Hill. Yesterday, we did move more than 3 tonnes of fish out of this little place."
"This morning, well, we had the bigger fish which was dying last night, and we're talking about at least another 5 tonnes of fish. Right now, the community is dying because of the scent not only from the river, and from the dead fish."
"How are you guys gonna help us?"
"You go out there early in the morning, you're gonna see the amount of fish that we still have in front of our house, which has never happened in the past 50 years that I'm living there."
Concerned Resident 3 "The 66-foot limit along the rivers is law. We all can see that the destruction of it is going on. We can see it by the land, and we can see it from satellites. Why is nothing being done to make sure that the 66-foot limit is enforced?"
Anthony Mai "The 66-feet requirement, to leave 66-feet along any water body is actually in the Lands Act. It's not in the Environmental Protection Act. Let me go on further. The function of the 66-feet reserve was put in place as an easement, but over the years, after studies have been done, the scientists realize that the 66-feet requirement also has an environmental protection purpose."
"Remember I told you that the ECP is one of the strongest environmental tools. If you break the conditions of the ECP, you're breaking the law. And so, the only way we could institute the 66-feet reserve is if we put that within the conditions of the ECP, and then the person who signs the ECP agrees to maintain and keep this buffer in place. I agree that more needs to be done, but that is the fact of the matter as is."
Concerned Resident 4 "I am personally hoping that you will enforce the law. I am specifically asking that you do something tomorrow, starting at 8 o'clock when you open your office. There is contamination due to feces in the river. There are eyewitnesses that see the septic tanks being washed at the river. They're witnesses seeing the fuel tanks being washed at the river. There are people who wash their vehicles at the river. What, I would like to know, are you going to do to arrest these practices?"
"We started our conversations with you all 2017, and I understood then you don't have enough resources. You're saying yes, you're gone ahead, but it's not enough. And I ask again, lately, are we going to hear the same story again, that you don't have enough resources?"
"The people will be willing to work with you. We want to be in full partners with you, and to be full partners with the Town Council and any other parties who are willing to work. And I believe that all of us are."
Concerned Resident 5 "When it comes to the presentation, one of the presentations, very informative, but I noticed a few things. You were telling us that our daily uses are contributing to the deterioration of the river. You mentioned how the tortilla [factories] how it contributed as well. You took time out to defend ASR/BSI. Have they not contributed toward this? Let me finish, then you can answer. 2, I'm saddened, and I'm hurt because I think there is more that could be done. We have to get up, and we have to work this out together. ASR/BSI, we would like to know much percentage have they contributed to the damage and the dying of this river. They are not 100% innocent in this."
Anthony Mai - Environmental Officer, DOE "I think my presentation shows more clearly that everyone is contributing to the impacts of the river. I tried to be as factual as possible, as it relates to information. In fact, one of the information that was presented was the fact that the data shows that water quality is at its lowest right in front of BSI. We are not here to hide any information. We're here to present the fact. The issue is that there are several contributing factors the reason why the river is the way it is. That is the information that we're presenting to you guys."
Edgar Romero - Concerned Resident "How can you use BSI's data, when it says here in your so-called Environmental Compliance Plan, which was signed in 2016, the river surveys shall be conducted monthly. So, my question to you guys, how many river surveys have you done? And that data, do you have that data to compare to BSI's data, which you are presenting to us?"
Anthony Mai "Let me make a point of clarification, listen to what I will tell you, and listen to it carefully. There is no regulation under the environmental laws that says what the quality of surface water should be. And so, if BSI takes - if the DOE comes and we take readings of the river, and if the river is very polluted, we can't charge anyone for that. There is no provision under the law for that. This is what you need to understand clearly. The Department could charge for when the water comes out of the treatment system. And listen to what I'm telling you. This from a legal standpoint, from a regulatory standpoint, is more important. Well not more important, but in terms of the legal perspective, this is how it needs to be done. The reason why the department requested within the ECP for BSI to conduct their river survey, is to provide the information for us to know if there is any environmental concern within the river. So, it's an indicator of when the river is going wrong when the river is going bad. So, we told BSI, you need to study the river for us, and give us the information, so we know when to react, and what to put in place."
Edgar Romero "But, it's your job. It says, a river survey shall be conducted monthly."
Anthony Mai. "BSI conducts monthly..."
Edgar Romero "How can you have the major polluting - the company that's polluting the river the most, they are the ones feeding you this information. How can you compare it?"
Anthony Mai "Yes, we do this with. For example, BECOL has 3 dams on the river. The Department does not have the resources to collect water. BECOL has about 40+ sample sites. So, this is a part of environmental management. We need the information to understand what is going on. We don't have the manpower and the resources to get - remember, in my presentation, there are 82 effluent generators in Belize. Now, it is difficult for the Department to basically monitor those 82 and still do additional work in terms of river monitoring. That's the reason why we work with companies."
Orlando De La Fuente - Concerned Resident "What boggles my mind is how could you depend on an entity to regulate themselves, as the Department of Environment you should conduct your own water testing. Number 1. And tonight, I listened to like 2 hours and 30 minutes of a lot of technical data, and the doctor and Aldo came up with what you guys are calling, these are recommendations. Recommendations are not the law. Recommendations are like, hey, I recommend that you cut your hair, start to work out or go on diet. You don't have to do it."
"If you are telling us that we're all responsible, why don't you require that of us? Why don't you go to Maracas, go to the Town Council, go to the tortilla factory and say, hey, you're causing this is how much you're responsible for in causing harm to the river?"
Anthony Mai - Environmental Officer, DOE "I mentioned that we already met with the Orange Walk Town Council. We have identified some key industries that we want to work with. Now, I don't want to use the word to bring down the hammer. The way that the Department of Environment works is that we work together to improve. And so, when we meet with these light industries, the idea is to say listen, you have a wastewater issue, let's work together to resolve the issue."
The event started at 7:30 and finished at 11:00.
The DOE assured the residents of Orange Walk that they are making a proposed Water Shed Management Plan for the New River a top priority.