Faced by another toxic fire at the Harrold Road dump as a general election nears, the government has swung into action with an express ‘request for proposals’ to fix the problem.
The original dump was transformed into a sanitary landfill in the late 90s, with financing and guidance from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). But equipment and management failures over time spawned an environmental disaster, surrounded by housing estates.
As well as failing to implement and sustain the IDB’s fully funded plans, successive governments have routinely ignored numerous integrated waste management proposals from Bahamian and foreign experts over the past 20-odd years.
Now, in a rush to impress voters, bids have been requested for the “remediation and management” of the dump. The request was issued April 10 and proposals must be submitted by April 26 - an unheard of time-frame for such a big project.
It is understood that bids are being submitted, but for some strange reason the government has sought to keep all details under a cloak of secrecy. Bidders are under a gag order not to talk to the press.
And no information on the terms and conditions is provided in the RFP notice other than the basic requirements - a $10,000 non-refundable fee and a signed non-disclosure agreement.
Normally, a non-disclosure agreement seeks to protect proprietary information provided by bidders. British procurement law, for example, requires contracting parties to protect elements of tenders which bidders have “reasonably designated” as confidential.
But keeping a lid on the actual terms of reference for a public project is inexplicable. It should be obvious to everyone that transparency is indispensable for a sound public procurement process—to everyone but our cabinet ministers, that is.
Details of the government’s previous failed effort to fix the dump (when Renew Bahamas was given a contract in 2013 outside of an existing RFP process) were also kept secret, despite numerous public demands over several years. Renew walked off the job last year and we are still no wiser about the terms of their contract.
I daresay that disclosing the terms for managing a public dump would not qualify for a top-secret classification anywhere but in the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.
Update on Solar
In December, this column revealed that the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority (URCA) was working with Bahamas Power & Light (BPL) to set up a licensing and regulatory system for renewable energy.
This comes right at the end of the government’s term - meaning that another five years has gone by without any appreciable progress on fossil fuel reduction, energy efficiency, or the use of renewables.
Renewable energy provisions in the 2015 Electricity Act cover self-generation by homes and businesses (using solar panels or wind turbines, for example) together with grid interconnection and utility billing credits (known as net metering).
The law also provides for utility-scale renewable energy generation, based on power purchase agreements to be negotiated between BPL and third party providers.
But everything has been on hold, ostensibly until URCA, BPL and the Ministry of Works sort things out. In fact, progress has been continuously delayed and obstructed - despite the fact that solar in particular is a mature and cost-effective technology with many benefits for the environment and the economy.
In spite of all this stonewalling, there are already hundreds of residential and small business solar photovoltaic installations around the country - including those operated by cabinet ministers. But less costly grid-tied facilities (which don’t require batteries) and net metering were not allowed until recently.
The rationale for this was that grid-tied systems are unsafe and would endanger BEC workers. But in fact, they were allowed for certain government officials and government projects. Apparently, when installed on government projects and ministers' homes they became mysteriously safe, but when installed by the general public they were unsafe.
As I reported, URCA’s preliminary consultation document in December called for publication of a final document in January followed by a period of public consultation ending March 31. A final document was never published and it is unclear whether any submissions were received in response to the public consultation.
But BPL launched its small-scale self-generation programme a month ago without any fanfare (the details can be found on its website). And according to URCA’s newly appointed director for the electricity sector - ex-BEC manager Shevonn Cambridge - the details are still being finalised.
“The relevant agencies (iURCA, MOW, & BPL) are working to finalize the safety, technical and commercial terms.,” he told me. “At this stage it is considered to be in a beta-testing mode, with wide-scale publication projected to commence in mid-May.”
Why a technology that has been in use for over three decades around the world needs beta testing here is beyond me - as well as most experts I talk to. It is even more inexplicable when we consider that BPL is managed by Southern Power, which has years of experience installing megawatt solar plants in the US.
And the bad news is that the owners of all currently inspected and installed renewable systems will now have to get one of the few local three-phase electricians to sign off on another application and then go through another lengthy inspection process to be compliant with the new regulations.
This is primarily for safety reasons, and secondarily for records management with regard to the component of the national energy demand being met by renewables, Cambridge said. “The inspection of off-grid systems will be facilitated by URCA and the Ministry of Works where applicable.”
Existing systems were inspected according to the 2015 Canadian Electrical Code, which is applied in the Bahamas. And since all solar systems were inspected by current Ministry of Works electrical inspectors, what could possibly have changed to require new inspections (other than for record-keeping)? This will only create a bureaucratic bottleneck for the renewables sector.
Asked how long the inspection process can be expected to take, Cambridge was philosophical: “The maximum time frame should not be more than two months from receipt of a properly completed application. It should be noted, however, that due to the volume anticipated within the initial period, this timeframe may be exceeded. URCA will closely monitor progress to ensure that applications are processed as quickly as possible.”
The good news is that there is finally - after more than a decade of shuffling and jiving - an official regime for small-scale generation of renewable energy in the Bahamas.
But according to Cambridge, URCA’s review of BPL’s Utility Scale Renewable Energy plan is still underway and won’t be completed until late this year. Then the regulations will have to be brought into force, followed by a procurement process.
So we are likely to be approaching 2020 before anything concrete can happen at this level - hardly acceptable for an island nation touted as a “world leader” in sustainable energy.
The Government and Freedom of Information
Official stonewalling is not confined to the renewable energy sector. Both the Ingraham and Christie administrations enacted freedom of information laws at the end of their respective terms, but neither have been brought into force.
The cabinet minister responsible for the latest FOI act - Jerome Fiztgerald - has said he expects to appoint an information commissioner soon. But most experts familiar with the law say the appointment process is seriously flawed. It allows the prime minister to select the commissioner after "consultation" with the leader of the opposition.
It stands to reason that the information commissioner should be appointed by an independent process, such as the Judicial Services Committee or a parliamentary select committee, with representation from the opposition.
Additionally, civil society representatives should be included in the decision-making process - either though membership on the select committee or by the publication of a short-list of candidates for public feedback.
If the current provisions are brought into force, the information commissioner will be a creature of the government, and so will be unlikely to make decisions that are not agreeable to the political directorate.
Now that the political battle lines for the upcoming general election are as clear as they will ever get - and the election has been set for May 10 - we can take a look at the prospects.
Initial observations are that the old guard of the PLP retain their mafia-like grip on the party. And they are desperately doubling down on promises and threats as the campaigning gets underway.
Familiar characters from my youth still loom large and in charge - grossly so, in fact. They include the likes of Bernard Nottage, Perry Christie, Balton Bethel, Bradley Roberts and Allyson Maynard-Gibson.
Meanwhile, disaffected and disappointed FNMs have made a reluctant effort to coalesce around Dr Hubert Minnis as the only effective option left to them. And the party now features fresh personalities from top to bottom.
But the FNM’s strategy still seems to rely on confidence that the government will fall into their hands no matter what they do or don't do. They may be right - the ground game is not visible to me - but on the surface this is the most laissez-faire opposition campaign in memory.
The seven FNM parliamentarians who removed Minnis as opposition leader last year are now politically irrelevant, and most won’t be running again. Only Loretta Butler-Turner has confirmed her independent candidacy in Long Island.
According to the DNA, the political reality in the Bahamas has changed dramatically, and both the PLP and the FNM will have to eat crow this time around. Bran McCartney believes he will decide who will govern the country for the next five years.
The DNA's 60-page platform includes pledges for a series of inquiries into hot-button controversies like the Bank of the Bahamas meltdown, a $500 million economic stimulus, liberalisation of the energy sector, creation of a national lottery, and implementation of local government on New Providence.
"Unlike the FNM and PLP who have released similar manifestos, and failed to deliver, this is not just campaign talk – this is what we will accomplish,” the DNA said. “We don’t have aspirations as a political dynasty and if we can’t deliver in our first five years then we don’t belong in government."
A recent spate of animal stories has unexpectedly highlighted the bad governance issues that are harming our country.
Swimming Pigs First we had the demise of a certain number of the celebrated ‘swimming pigs’ of Big Major Cay in the Exumas.
Despite the various fanciful origin theories offered on Wikipedia, these pigs were actually put on the cay by a Staniel Cay family following hurricanes in the 1990s. And there is a constant ‘turnover' that no-one talks about.
Since there is very little forage or fresh water on the cay for a passel of hogs (as such a grouping is known), the animals began to hang out on the beach begging food from passing boaters.
And in recent years, the stranded pigs have become a huge tourist attraction, with excursion boats from Nassau and the Exumas charging as much as $400 per head for a day trip. Tour operators have even taken to re-stocking the island with piglets from time to time.
Photos and video of pigs swimming up to boaters in the crystal clear Bahamian sea framed by a white sand beach turn up on social media frequently, and have been featured on news shows and in newspapers across Europe and North America.
It’s good publicity - something the Bahamas rarely gets these days. So when tales surfaced in late February that seven of the 22 swimming pigs had been found dead, there was an immediate uproar.
A stunning photo appeared on Facebook over the weekend. Taken from the stern of a small boat speeding away from New Providence, it showed the island entirely shrouded in toxic smoke from the exploding dump.
Other photos taken at night showed a still-raging dump fire when politicians and others were claiming the crisis was all but over.
And there were images of new bush fires burning unimpeded around the dump site, even as the government said it was calling in foreign experts to deal with the problem.
The path to the present crisis at the dump (it is one of many that have occurred over the years), began in the late 1970s, when the government phased out the Big Pond dump on Blue Hill Road and carved out a more remote site in the pine barren off Harrold Road.
A homeowner who has lived near the Harrold Road site since 1976 recalls how the surrounding area developed into a dense residential suburb over the years. Some of these communities had to be evacuated wholesale when the current fire began earlier this month. And it is still not known when they will be able to return.
‘Kill the Bill’ has become a rallying cry for privacy advocates in the Bahamas ever since the government - without prior notice - tabled a draconian new surveillance law called the Interception of Communications Bill.
This law will let the authorities intercept and store any communication. Other than applying for a warrant, there are no safeguards built in that would cover such issues as attorney-client privilege, the confidential sources of journalists, or the conversations of members of parliament.
The proposal follows on the heels of similar legislation enacted in Britain, Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana and other countries over the last decade or so.
These laws all trace their origin back to the US Patriot Act, passed after the 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington. Among other things, the Patriot Act gave authorities a free hand to conduct mass surveillance and secretly enter homes and businesses.
Secret search of your home or office is also a feature of our government’s Bill, which was recently withdrawn following an avalanche of criticism. However, the government is not abandoning the law. Rather, it will craft a public relations campaign to help push it through.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s rise to the American presidency, fake news has become a trending topic and media bias is the hot issue of the day.
As Trump himself declared recently, “A lot of the media is actually the opposition party — they’re so biased.” He could easily have added his favourite word: “Sad.”
The range of alternative news sites on the internet has complicated matters for most. Russian dissident Garry Kasparov pointed out that, “it can take a high level of education to separate fact from fiction in the dense information jungle we face online.”
And conservative American talk show host Charlie Sykes acknowledged that fake news during the US election had “polluted political discourse and clogged social media timelines…helping spread conspiracy theories and indulging the paranoia of the fever swamps.”
Sykes’ unfortunate conclusion is that any news deemed to be biased, embarrassing, annoying or negative can now simply be dismissed as fake.
As a journalist who trained in the early 1970s at the height of the profession’s prestige and influence, this is all deeply troubling. Widespread distrust of the professional media has serious consequences for democracy and public accountability.
We know all too well here, that when our political leaders feel threatened by mass communication they do not control, the first thing they do is attack the messenger.
But if citizens are ever to hold those in power accountable, we have to rely on the press for information that we can use to judge their policies and behaviours.