THE Environmental Management Authority (EMA) may have broken the law through its absence during last weekend's earthworks on the Grande Riviere Beach, one of the world's top nesting havens for endangered sea turtles.
Environmental attorney, Rajendra Ramlogan, said last week the operation should have required a Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC), since it was carried out by the Ministry of Works and Infrastructure and was not supervised by the EMA.
The ministry should have applied for a CEC, he said.
Ramlogan said the EMA's position that the modification of the Grande Riviere River, which had meandered far west over the past eight months to erode the beach and threaten a number of properties, was an emergency, may not qualify as such under Section 25 of the Environmental Management Act.
EMA Chief Executive Officer, Dr Joth Singh, visited the beach days before the operation and deemed the situation an emergency, with the EMA subsequently giving the ministry the go ahead.
First reported in the Express last Monday, this action resulted in the deaths of hundreds of hatchlings of endangered sea turtles, many of them leatherbacks.
Ramlogan said while the number of dead hatchlings could be bandied about, the question of whether proper procedure was followed remains to be answered.
The fact that the EMA had knowledge of the erosion threat for weeks — possibly months — may negate protection from the Act, the umbrella under which the operation was carried out.
"A number of questions are being raised," Ramlogan said.
"A CEC is required to modify a river system, as stated in activity 41 of the EM Act. Section 35, 2, of the EM Act, states that no person shall proceed with any activity designated as requiring a certificate unless that person applies for and receives a certificate."
The Act also requires that the EMA conduct the operation but does not allow the Authority to give verbal permission to another party to carry on — in the absence of the Authority.
Section 25 states : "Whenever the Authority reasonably believes that a release or threat of release of a pollutant or hazardous substance, or any other environmental condition, presents a threat to human health or the environment, the Authority may, after consultation with the Minister and in co-ordination with other appropriate governmental entities, undertake such emergency response activities as are required to protect human health or the environment, including, (a) the remediation or restoration of environmentally degraded sites; (b) the containment of any wastes, hazardous substances or environmentally dangerous conditions; and (c) such other appropriate measures as may be necessary to prevent or mitigate adverse effects on human health or the environment."
"The Act states that the EMA, after consultation with the relevant bodies, is the one to undertake the emergency response activities, in cooperation with another entity, if necessary," Ramlogan said.
"So we must call into question the actions of the EMA with regard to what happened at Grande Riviere last weekend. This is definitely a can of worms."
The Authority must outline for the public what steps were taken to ensure that the operation was carried out in an environmentally sound manner, Ramlogan said, since it is illegal to kill turtles or destroy their eggs, following an amendment to the Fisheries Act in October, 2011, known as the Protection of Turtle and Turtle Eggs Regulations.
Ramlogan also pointed to the lack of respect shown to "local knowledge" throughout Trinidad and Tobago.
"These decisions are too centralised," Ramlogan said.
"Sustainable development includes the use of local knowledge."
Some members of the Grande Riviere community have insisted that the river's behaviour over the past eight months or so is cyclical, usually taking place every ten to fifteen years.
The ministry was notified since December last year and several times earlier in 2012 — prior to the start of the nesting season — they said.
Unusually heavy rains, even through the dry season, caused the river to veer even further west.
Residents questioned the ministry's delay, leading to an emergency during the nesting season.
Director of Drainage, Shamshad Mohammed, said last week the ministry could not have predicted the extent to which the river would wander off course.
Mohammed also said ministry workers had reported that the area "was not habitable for any eggs that were deposited there, with more than eighty per cent of the eggs already destroyed by the anaerobic conditions".
Conservationists have also remained divided on the numbers.
Dr Allan, Bachan, Director of the Turtle Village Trust, has supported the ministry's position that Zone Four of the beach, where the digging took place, had seen less females this year.
The EMA said last week it had been advised by Turtle Village Trust that about 125 hatchlings had been killed.
But resident Sherwin Reyz, who has spent years collecting hatchlings for safe release, was among those claiming that Zone Four had dozens of viable nests at the time of the digging.
The Ministry of the Environment last week ran full-page advertisements in daily newspapers, to restate its position that the dredging of the beach saved over one million eggs on just over a mile of nesting ground.
"This as a wasted opportunity to use this event as a catalyst for positive change, rather than deny accountability at all costs," said Marc deVerteuil of Papa Bois Conservation, the first group to highlight last weekend's tragedy.
"Ganga Singh is newly appointed to a ministry which has been historically neglected. We would like to see him lead the country out of this crisis by placing accountability where it belongs, to prevent this from reoccurring."
Pat Turpin, president of Environment Tobago, where turtle poaching remains a problem, said:
"From the information available, it seems that the entire event was avoidable. This demonstrated a case of appalling timing, lack of communication and coordination among various parties, where the situation became a crisis. Instead of the excuses and the quibbling about numbers, an apology would have gone a long way. We are still wondering what's next and how do we move forward?"