“I don’t care who say they starting when. They can’t start until that town planner says they can start and the minister of town planning is the Prime Minister, and until he signs, not a fellow building nothing in Barbados because those are the rules.”
– Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler responding to the mooted September start of the controversial Cahill plasma gasification plant at Vaucluse, St Thomas.
IF ALLEGATIONS made by Leader of the Opposition Mia Mottley about Cahill’s $700 million waste-to-energy facility are true, then a couple of questions must be answered.
First, how is it that the Government of Barbados could apparently be committed to a project of such magnitude – through a memorandum of understanding (MOU) – reportedly BEFORE Cabinet approval could be obtained?
Secondly, how is it that the Cahill boss, Clare Cowan, can give a start date of September, but Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler can almost immediately say, essentially, hold it, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, who holds the town planning portfolio, has to approve.
Meanwhile, Minister of the Environment Dr Denis Lowe, who has been at the centre of the controversy, did not address the start-up date but spoke only in terms of "going through the final logistical issues to get ready for ‘ground-break’ and construction”.
It creates the impression that some members of the Cabinet and the investor are not, in the cliché, singing from the same hymn sheet on either the process or required procedure.
As I said last week, it appeared that the Government was caught by surprise by Mottley’s reply to the 2015 Budget and was unprepared for a substantial rebuttal.
But if anxious Barbadians were anticipating a fuller, point-by-point response from Government, possibly via a Ministerial Statement from any one of the key Cabinet members involved, they will probably have to wait a little longer since Parliament has taken the annual four-week summer recess.
Meantime, concerned Bajans seeking concrete information on the project have had to rely on sketchy published reports and indulge in a little speculation as to the provenance and likely efficacy of the proposed facility.
According to the timeline outlined by Mottley in the House of Assembly, the MOU was signed on March 15, 2014, two days before the Estimates debate, without either the Attorney General or the Solicitor General approving the contract as fit for signature by Ministers of the Crown.
While the Solicitor General is a public officer and is not likely to speak publicly on this or any other controversial political matter, the Attorney General did not specifically (to my knowledge) deny that he had not approved the contract.
However, Sinckler denied this specific allegation, saying the Solicitor General was engaged on the matter and advised on the agreement “indicating what she liked and what she thought ought to be changed in the document”.
The Minister of the Environment did not specifically deny that the Cabinet and the two top legal officers had not approved the agreement.
“The facts are that all of the relevant authorities had sight of the agreement,” Lowe said, “and though there may have been a diversity of views about the bringing of the plant to Barbados, we finally settled on the plan.”
Mottley recalled that Sinckler had announced at the Saturday, March 15, 2014 signing ceremony that Cahill Energy expected to invest US$240 million in the proposed plant.
But she had objected in the House on the grounds that Cahill was only formed in August 2012 in Guernsey and was just a shell company on a nameplate with no experience to which Government had given a licence to shop for investment.
She said the project then went to the Cabinet two months later in May 2014, with the executive being asked to rescind a previous decision to go out to tender for waste to energy facilities.
The Cabinet then agreed, she added, that the Sanitation Service Authority (SSA), which has responsibility for waste management, should NEGOTIATE with Cahill Energy (Barbados) to develop, finance, design, construct, own, operate and maintain a plasma gasification waste-to-energy facility at Vaucluse.
Cabinet, she pointed out, has not had any further dealings with the project.
Another area of concern which no one apparently wants to address is the cost.
In March 2014, Cahill said it would cost US$240 million (BDS$480 million); on July 10, 2014, Cowan said BDS$512; in May 2015, it was reported that it would cost BDS$600 million; and by June 13, Cahill was saying it would cost BDS$700 million.
These are but a few of the unsettling issues around this project on which Government owes Barbadians a detailed explanation.
Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent.