Business as usual: An aerial view of the illegal quarry site in the Matura Forest. —Photo: CURTIS CHASE

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Highway Robbery

Police probe stolen aggregate used in $7.5b Pt Fortin road project

By Anika Gumbs CCN Senior Multimedia Investigative Journalist

Tonnes of stolen aggregate have been used in the construction of the $7.5 billion Sir Solomon Hochoy Highway extension to Point Fortin.

A special Sunday Express investigation has uncovered truck-loads of the aggregate (known as half-and-half material) excavated from an illegal quarrying site in the Matura Forest were delivered for use on the Debe-to-Mon Desir segment of the highway extension from October 2013 to February this year. 

The highway is being constructed by Brazilian firm Construtora OAS. 

The aggregate, the Sunday Express learned, was purchased at $200 per yard.  

Checks at several other quarries indicated aggregate is usually sold per yard at a cost of $225 to $250. 

Investigations sho­wed that on a daily basis, between 16 and 20 loads of the aggregate were delivered to the construction site in 20-tonne trucks. 

Police said the illegal mining operations were being conducted mere metres behind a licenced quarry situated at Rio Grande Trace, Matura, between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m. 

The stolen aggregate, police said, is sold to various companies duri­ng the day. 

Police said investigations revealed the aggregate was being excavated at the illegal quarrying site and a portion of the material is being stockpiled at the licenced quarry. 

The perpetrators, police said, have illegally bulldozed and excavated approximately 400 acres comprising both State and private lands in search of aggregate. 

The matter, the Sunday Express learned, was reported to the Ministry of Energy more than a year ago. 

In-depth checks and research are currently being conducted by the relevant authorities to ascertain what percentage of the acreage is State and private lands, the Sunday Express learned.

Caribbean Minerals Agency (CMA) Ltd is the company officially contracted to supply aggregate for the highway. 

The Sunday Express contacted co-owner of CMA Howard John on May 22 enquiring about where his company purchases aggregate for the highway construction. 

John said: “We bought material from a businessman (name called) when we started to supply the half-and-half aggregate to OAS from October last year. 

“Whenever we bought aggregate from that businessman, it went directly to OAS. He supplied (CMA) with the aggregate for about four months. We stopped taking aggregate from him around Carnival because we now produce the aggregate.”

Asked why CMA opted to purchase the aggregate from the particular businessman, John said: “A few years ago police seized equipment belonging to the businessman, but he has now joined with someone and claims he is purchasing the raw material and processing it. On the face of it, his processing operation is legitimate. On his plant he only processes gravel—no mining takes place there. Given the sheer volume of material... I am concerned about the amount of production that goes on in that remote area in terms of where he gets the raw material from, but the authorities have to find that out. As I said before, we have stopped buying from him.”

In 2012 police, acting on a tip-off, seized approximately $70 million in equipment at an illegal quarrying site in the Matura Forest. 

However, to date the excavators along with a fleet of trucks remain unclaimed in Cumuto, as no one has come forward to claim them. 

State loses out

Further investigations showed as the State has had no success in clamping down on illegal activities, the perpetrators have also escaped from paying millions of dollars in royalties. 

Under the Minerals Act, a royalty rate of $4 is charged per cubic yard on all quarry resources extracted.  

The royalty rate, the Sunday Express learned, is paid on a quarterly basis to the office of the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Energy.  

In addition, the Sunday Express learned the perpetrators are also in violation of conducting mining operations outside of the stipulated time frame.  

Under the act, quarry resources are to be excavated between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. from Monday to Friday. 

The act further states quarry pits are not to be excavated to a depth greater than 30 feet (9.1 metres) within the licenced area, unless approval is granted by the director of minerals. 

As part of this special investigation, the Sunday Express ventured into the Matura Forest on May 19 to get a firsthand look at the mining operations taking place, but was unable to make any headway as a man driving a 20-tonne truck began trailing the vehicle in which we were travelling and obstructed it, seeming almost to want to run it off the road. 

On May 21, the Sunday Express returned to the area in a helicopter and was able to capture aerial footage that shows the devastation to the environment due to the illegal mining operations being conducted.  

It was observed that business activity at the nearby licensed quarry was at a standstill, while at the illegal quarrying site several truckers were seen waiting for the stolen aggregate to be loaded into the trucks. 

A navy blue Ford Ranger truck was also spotted parked at the front of the illegal quarrying site. 

On May 22 when the Sunday Express returned to the area, the same blue Ford Ranger bearing the exact licence plate was parked outside the office at the licenced quarry site. 

Residents in the area told the Sunday Express a businessman (name called) was the driver of the blue Ford Ranger and was responsible for the illegal mining operations being conducted. 

The Sunday Express again ventured to the illegal quarrying site in search of the businessman. However, a man seated in a silver Toyota Hilux truck at the entrance of the site said the businessman “was not around”.

Asked if there was a telephone number to contact the businessman, the man in the silver Hilux replied: “Who is asking?”

Told the Sunday Express needed to speak with the businessman, the man in the silver Hilux then said: “Give me your number and I will call him.”

The businessman immediately contacted the Sunday Express and, when asked if he was responsible for illegal mining operations taking place in the Matura Forest, he replied: “I don’t know about any illegal operations. As far as I know, I purchase my raw material and sell. That is what I do.”

Asked where the raw material was purchased, the businessman said: “I have a guy who buys material from different people all over the place. I do not get directly involved. How people view it, I cannot speak for them. I have been in this business for about 15 years.”

Pressed further as to whether he was in possession of a quarry licence, the businessman asked:

“What are all these questions about? If there are reports that I am conducting illegal quarry operations, then let the police do their work. I don’t do mining—I process. I buy aggregate and process.”

As to whether he obtained the relevant licence or approval to process aggregate, the businessman said: “Nobody in T&T has a processing licence. I have filled out an application like everyone else and I am waiting. There is a procedure.”

Police “leaks”

As the Sunday Express probed deeper to find out why no attempt has been made to stop the illegal mining operations in spite of reports being lodged at the ministry, sources at the Ministry of National Security disclosed police raids have been aborted due to “leaks” from within. 

In fact, it was learned a police exercise was planned on May 23 to shut down the illegal quarrying site after intelligence gathered confirmed the mining operations were taking place in the Matura Forest without authorised permission. However, due to a breach, the Sunday Express learned the exercise was unsuccessful, as the perpetrators vacated the site after receiving a tip-off. 

Last Wednesday, police said the illegal quarrying site remains under surveillance as another exercise is being planned. 

When contacted for comment on Thursday, National Security Minister Gary Griffith confirmed investigations into the matter were ongoing. Griffith, however, said he was unable to divulge any information relating to the matter due to its sensitivity. 

“I cannot comment on ongoing investigations, especially a matter of such nature. The information is extremely sensitive,” he said. 

 

Flashback

ILLEGAL quarry operators in the country are taking home up to $150,000 tax-free per day, Energy Minister Kevin Ramnarine said last month, as he announced new measures that may become law in the fight against illegal mining.

The possible daily pay-off was contained in a report by an inter-agency commission appointed in 2013 to look into illegal mini­ng.

The committee was chaired by director of Legal Services at the Ministry of Energy Indira Ramkissoon, and was mandated to consider legislative changes aimed at alleviating illegal quarry activities.

 

Excerpts of the committee’s report were presented by Ramna­rine at a post-Cabinet briefing at the Office of the Prime Minister in St Clair late last month.

Most of the illegal activities appear to be clustered in Northeast Trinidad, especially in the Valencia and Matura areas, it was said.

 

Questions Sent to minister

The following questions were sent to Energy Minister Kevin Ramnarine via e-mail on May 29, seeking comment on the matter. Ramnarine, however, responded indicating the questions were forwarded to the permanent secretary, Selwyn Lashley, and a response will be forthcoming on June 2.

Below is the list of questions sent to Ramnarine, the line minister for quarrying activities in the country:

1. Was a quarry licence ever granted to a businessman (name called) for ope­rations in the Matura Forest? If yes, please explain. 

2. Police have confirmed that the businessman is currently under surveillance for illegal mining operations in the Matura Forest. Is the Ministry of Energy aware of this? 

3. Information obtained by the Sunday Express indicates that the Ministry of Energy was made aware of the illegal mining operations being conducted by the businessman two years ago. Please indicate what action was taken by the ministry to stop the illegal activity. 

4. Information obtained by the Sunday Express revealed that a quarry licence was granted to two people  in 2009 to conduct operations at Rio Grande Trace, Matura. 

Investigations revealed that the businessman now operates from the same compound. Please indicate if a quarry licence is transferable and the procedure involved. 

5. Police have confirmed that an exer­cise was planned on May 23 to shut down the illegal operations being conducted by businessman (name called) in the Matura Forest. However, due to a detected possible breach the exercise was aborted. Please say what action the Ministry of Energy intends to take to stop the illegal activity. 

6. Investigations uncovered that the stolen aggregate retrieved from illegal mining operations in the Matura Forest is being used to build the highway to Point Fortin. Is the Ministry of Energy aware of this?

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