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Belize: Vulcan Mining Plan Extracts Protests, Foresight

Updated: Sep 11


(Photo by Amandala)

 

Along with the vociferous opposition of local residents and several government ministers to Vulcan Materials Company's proposal to quarry limestone near Gales Point Manatee, the mining company’s campaign has moved Belize’s Minister of Sustainable Development to consider creating a long-term “national development plan”.


Orlando Habet, Minister of Sustainable Development, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management told Love News FM (September 1):


“Definitely, the government will have to decide . . . on what kind of development it really wants going forward. Possibly one of the faults we have, along with other governments, we have plans for maybe five years.


“We have to start looking at 40-, 50-year development plans. Not only with the party but, maybe, bring in the opposition parties, the churches, civil society and everybody else so that we can see where we want to be in 50 years. So, whether another party gets in to form the government, they might be able to change how you get there, but they can’t change that’s where we want to go because that’s something that was a national development plan.”


Minister Habet, who has a Master of Science degree in Animal Breeding and Genetics as well as a Bachelor of Science degree in Dairy Production, has shown his proclivity for longer-term plans in the past. Breaking Belize News (March 22) reported that the Ministry’s “target is to strengthen the implementation of the framework for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and create a medium-term development strategy along with the Ministry of Economic Development that . . . puts Belize into thoughtful, rational action. . . . “


In addition, “Habet announced plans to phase out short-term forest licenses and strengthen long-term forest management programs by importing some limited species.”


The fruition of Minister Habet’s idea of creating a 50-year national plan would render the Vulcan campaign a catalyst for a stronger Belize. A plan, which lays bare the nation’s ecological and developmental outlook, would make it clear to companies that the jewel (a popular term of endearment for Belize) is not interested in selling its natural beauty and ecological balance for, as Deputy Prime Minister Cordel Hyde put it, “a few jobs here and a few nickels there”. With such a plan, Belizeans could channel their time, energy and creativity away from survival missions and into constructive projects.

 

In May, Mexico stopped Vulcan's limestone quarry operation in Quintana Roo

 

Who is Vulcan Materials Company


Vulcan Materials Company was founded in 1909 as the Birmingham Slag Company. The Birmingham, Alabama, firm is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. In 2019, its revenue was $4.929 billion.


Vulcan is mainly engaged in the production, distribution and sale of construction materials, such as gravel, crushed stone and sand. It employs 8,373 workers at about 300 facilities, according to Fortune (January 28, 2019). The firm serves about 20 states, the District of Columbia and, until recently, Mexico. In May, Belize’s neighbor shut down Vulcan’s operations due to methods that President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said amounted to “ecological catastrophe”, reported Reuters (May 25).


In March 2007, Vulcan Materials announced that it had been named to Fortune magazine’s list of Most Admired Companies for the sixth time. The company was ranked first in its industry sector, “Building Material, Glass. Overall, Vulcan ranked among the top 10 companies in the Fortune 1000 for both long-term investment and social responsibility.


Yet, according to The Atlantic: “Bayou Corne (Sinkhole) (in 2012) is the biggest industrial disaster in the United States you haven’t heard of.”


In January 2018, Vulcan Materials was found to be partly responsible for the Bayou Corne Sinkhole in Louisiana along with Occidental Petroleum and Texas Brine Company, according to The Advocate, January 12, 2018. Occidental was found to be 50 percent responsible; Texas Brine 35 percent, and Vulcan 15 percent in a 2018 ruling of the 23rd Judicial District of Louisiana, reported BRProud News (August 5, 2018).


The Bayou Corne Sinkhole was created from a collapsed underground salt dome cavern. When the sinkhole first appeared in 2012, it spanned 2.5 acres. In 2018, it had grown to 34 acres, reported The Advocate (Baton Rouge) (October 12, 2018).


On its discovery, 350 residents were advised to evacuate the area as crude oil and methane gas came up, reported WVUE (December 4, 2014). Four years later, residents were allowed to return to their homes; only 12 out of 350 did so.


In an August 5 email to Dr. Ed Boles, an aquatic ecologist, who is an adjunct lecturer at Galen University in Cayo, Belize, Janet F. Kavinoky, Vice President, External Affairs & Corporate Communications for Vulcan Materials Company, responded to his concerns:


“Over a 14-year period, the Mexican government repeatedly awarded our operation with its “Clean Industry Certificate” – the highest official environmental award given by the government of Mexico to businesses operating in Mexico.”


For 36 years from 1986, Vulcan has been limestone quarrying for road fill in the bordering Mexican state of Quintana Roo. In May, the Mexican government stopped operations near Playa del Carmen on the Caribbean coast. The Environment Department said that parts of the quarry had been excavated below the water table and that mining threatened water quality and subsoil conditions. Meanwhile, the company has a trade dispute with the government, reported Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (May 6).

 

Janet F. Kavinoky, Vulcan's public relations official

 

Vulcan Looking at Belize


Now, Vulcan Materials is eyeing Belize.


“Vulcan Materials Company is exploring the feasibility of creating The White Ridge Project, an environmentally and socially sustainable limestone quarry, on the White Ridge Farm property near Gales Point, Belize,” according to the project website. . . . The project would create more than 250 jobs, preserve a conservation buffer zone, and support community services, including improving access to clean drinking water.”


The White Ridge Project website is sparse on details. However, Dr. Ed Bolan offered a wealth of information. The aquatic ecologist has spent more than 30 years protecting and restoring watersheds. He warned about Vulcan’s proposal in a guest editorial in the spring issue of The Ag Report, an independent, semi-annual agricultural newsletter:


“Representatives of Vulcan Materials Company (VMC) headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, visited Belize on a fact-finding mission in December 2019, and alerted many people of the Stann Creek District coastal area that the company intended to purchase the 6,000-hectare (15,000-acre) White Ridge Farm. They sent down a company team to conduct test borings of the karst (limestone region) and granite rock in early 2020.


“Their goal is to establish a foothold in Belize with a working aggregate mine and ship the mined materials from the karst hills of White Ridge Farm to the southeastern United States. Their intention is to strip away the forest and soil, continually blast the limestone hills, breaking them apart, crushing rocks into graded sizes of aggregates required for roadbeds, fill, concrete and asphalt mixes, and other construction uses in the U.S., where limestone deposits are now less available.


“The material would be transported over land and into the inner channel off the coast just south of Gales Point by a massive conveyor bridge suspended above the land and water. The conveyor bridge would be transporting crushed and sorted aggregates to Panamax (the size requirements for ships traveling through the Panama Canal) self-loading ships waiting at anchor in the deeper waters of the inner channel.


“Dredging would be required to accommodate 228 meters (748 ft., or longer) vessels with 13.5 to 14 meters (44 to 46 ft.) draft, and the area would need to be large and deep enough to turn these vessels.


“The scale of the project and the removal of karst features/aquifers are not compatible with the sustainable use of this area that conservation NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and residents have been envisioning and striving toward for three decades.


“Now this multi-billion-dollar company has set sights on the limestone deposits in Belize right next to the largest hawksbill sea turtle nesting beach and the largest congregation of manatees in the western Caribbean.


“Scraping away the forest and soil from a karst deposit imposes many impacts, including increasing the rate of storm-water runoff and erosion of the disturbed landscape and heavy sediment loads entering streams and the river. . . . Unfiltered water from mining sites that enters groundwater resources from the mining pit or sinkholes can greatly reduce groundwater quality. . . .


“Ground vibrations created by rock blasting and heavy equipment can loosen small particles within fractured rock and conduits, increasing turbidity within groundwater, which can show up in people’s wells. . . .


“The continual blasting and drilling and the continual movement of materials over the conveyor bridge (would) create patterns of vibrations that may affect manatee, sea turtles, and other wildlife in the area. Besides the impact on wildlife, these sounds (would) become a continual set of noises within the landscape, particularly those areas within a few miles of the mine.


“Ultimately, we are not sure just what the impact (would) be on the wildlife within the surrounding land and waters . . . until it starts to happen.”


In the United States, there has been opposition to Vulcan’s plans for limestone quarries because of damage to groundwater resources, worsening of air quality due to dust, noise pollution from blasting and heavy equipment, habitat loss, disruption of scenic vistas and the overall degradation of the landscape, said Boles. There have been protests in Franklin County, Georgia (WLHR, December 30, 2021) and in Comal County in Texas (Spectrum News 1, June 20, 2019).


Vulcan itself recognized that quarry areas were shrinking in the United States while demand was still high. In the legal claim administered by the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, Vulcan, the claimant, against United Mexican States, respondent (May 18, 2020), said:


“In the 1980s, encouraged by Mexico’s policies to attract foreign investment in nonoil sectors, Legacy Vulcan started investing in Mexico. It developed a one-of-a-kind project to quarry limestone and produce high-quality aggregates in the State of Quintana Roo for export to the United States. Legacy Vulcan’s investment in Mexico is a vertically integrated operation designed to produce millions of tons of aggregates over many decades for sale in markets along the Gulf Coast and Atlantic seaboard of the United States. Because there are few or no indigenous limestone deposits in those markets, high-quality aggregates command a premium price there.”

 

Minister of Sustainable Development, Orlando Habet, planting flamboyants and rain trees at Green Park

 

“I believe that the Cabinet will not support it.”


Prime Minister John Briceno said, “I believe that the Cabinet will not support it,” reported 7 News Belize (August 24):


“Anybody can come and buy land once the owner is prepared to sell. Now whether they get the necessary approvals, that’s another matter. I think the Minister of Natural Resources has been very clear on his position, and I’m certain that should that ever come up, the area representative, Minister of Human Development, Honorable Balderamos(-Garcia), has also said that it’s not something that the voters do not support. And certainly myself, as a former Minister of Environment, I would not. I don’t think it’s something I would take lightly or kindly to see that this beautiful mountain just be destroyed. . . . We are known as an eco-friendly country. And, as such, we’re going to do everything possible to protect that reputation that we have worldwide.”


Orlando Habet, Minister of Sustainable Development, said that “the Ministry doesn’t look favorably on it either”. He told Love News FM (September 1):


“I have visited the area. I know that the people are really strongly against it, not only because of the material that could possibly end up in the sea, affect the alkalinity of the ocean, change the entire biodiversity of the area. We’re also concerned that if those hills are broken down, that’s a landmark . . . but also on the other side of biodiversity, there are a lot of animals, species that could be affected. So, really, the Ministry doesn’t look favorably on it either. Of course, anybody can apply, but whether or not it will be approved is something else.”


Deputy Prime Minister Cordel Hyde told Channel 5 News in early August that the Vulcan limestone project is “a no-go for us”:


“The residents from Gale Point Manatee have made it absolutely clear to the government that they don’t want that kind of activity in their neck of their woods. Absolutely clear for the longest time, at least I can remember since we've been in government (in November 2020), and I imagine it's even from before then they've been clamoring and making that statement. And if we are a government of the people, by the people, for the people, then we have to listen to our people. So that's a no-go for us really.”


Since then, Minister Hyde said that Belize, as an independent sovereign nation, should have the ability to say no to a company. He confirmed that representatives from Vulcan have requested, via the U.S. Embassy in Belize, to meet with him. While he has not fulfilled that request, the representatives have met with the Ministry’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and the Mining Director, reported Amandala (August 27):


“We should have the power to say to any company, ‘You know what, your money is not good here. You know what, thanks, but it is okay. We do not want that kind of investment. We are concerned about other issues, and so you may want to move on to another country.’ We have that right. We’re an independent, sovereign nation. If we can’t do that, then we are not.


“We are dealing with giant companies. We are dealing with multinationals that are used to getting their own way.”


Minister Hyde said that the environmental damage from mining in the sea would be “unthinkable”:


“You’re talking about our animals. You’re talking about our marine life. You’re talking about our hicatee (freshwater tortoise), our manatees, our turtles, our fishes, our trees, our mountains that would never be the same. So, why should we go down that road for a few jobs here and a few nickels there, while the rich multinationals would exploit our raw materials and ship them abroad?


“You know what that sounds to me? That smacks of slavery. That smacks of colonialism. That’s the very same thing that the ancestors of the Gales Point community fought against – escaped from slavery hundreds of years ago because they could not deal with that. They shunned that kind of thing.”


Established around the late 1700s, Gales Point Manatee is a maroon community of people who resisted slavery by creating self-sufficient communities in the hinterlands.

 

Photo by The McEnery Company, retained as an expert by Vulcan in the Bayou Corne Sinkhole litigation. The New Orleans firm’s services included extensive market data collection and analysis in the determination of the before-market value of the affected properties.

 

Exchange Between Dr. Boles and Vulcan


In late August, Boles, the aquatic ecologist, and Vulcan exchanged emails, which were reprinted as an update on The Violence of Development, a companion website to the book by Martin Mowforth, a lecturer at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom (August 23). Boles wrote “colleagues”, including Vulcan (August 2):


“As a concerned citizen of Belize, I am providing information about Vulcan Materials Company (attached), a multi-billion dollar aggregate mining company in the United States, and its purchase of White Ridge Farm in the Stann Creek District of Belize. Their intent is to blast, pulverize, and ship Sugar Hills, a limestone formation, to the southeastern U.S. for use as road fill. Blasting would disrupt local hydrologic systems in the Southern Lagoon area, threatening the largest concentration of Caribbean manatees, as well as Central American river turtles, American crocodiles, and other fauna.


“The crushed material would be carried by a conveyor bridge that passes over an important hawksbill sea turtle nesting beach to waiting cargo ships in the dredged out center of the Inner Channel behind the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Spokespersons for the current Belize Government have stated that no strip mining shall occur in the area.”


Janet F. Kavinoky, Vulcan's public relations official, responded to Dr. Bolan’s email. Kavinoky described her skills on LinkedIn as “Lobbying, advocacy, communications strategy, media relations and policy analysis. . . . “


Before Vulcan, where she has been for seven years, she worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as Executive Director, Transportation & Infrastructure, and Vice President, Americans for Transportation Mobility Coalition. In 1995, she received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Economy from the University of Wyoming. In 2001, she received a Master in Business Administration from Stanford University Graduate School of Business, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.


On August 5, Kavinoky emailed her response to Dr. Bolan. She thanked him for keeping the communications channels open. However, she continued:


“It is misleading to try and quantify or detail environmental impacts before an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been conducted for The White Ridge Project.


"Vulcan Materials Company has not yet finalized a purchase of the White Ridge Farm property.


"If Vulcan purchases the White Ridge Farm Property, the project would undergo a rigorous and scientifically thorough EIA, conducted to World Bank standards and consistent with all Belizean regulations. That report will discuss scientific findings on any environmental impacts and a comprehensive plan on how best to address them. All relevant updates on the EIA process, including opportunities for stakeholder input, will be posted to our website and Facebook channels.”


The White Ridge Project Facebook page had 14 likes, 28 followers, stock answers to criticism and very little information on September 7.


In an August 15 email, Bolan responded to Kavinoky:


“Your response to my email and attached document does serve to open lines of communication. In that same spirit of sharing facts, I would like to address those claims you consider to be inaccurate if you will identify the ones to which you refer. . . .


“It is difficult to visualize an environmentally and socially sustainable, large-scale strip mine or open pit mine, and just what would make it so.


“Records of your corporation’s extractive mining operations across the United States and in Mexico, including fines, litigation, community protests, and headlines, describe Vulcan as something other than a responsible steward of those ecosystems where you have established mines. The reports I read on the Calica mine, or SAC-TUN, also tell a very different story. When the Mexican Government responded to abuses of your mining privileges, not rights, by finally shutting down the mine, the Government must then defend itself against a $1.5 billion-dollar lawsuit in an international court. This recent history also raises alarm as to what we might expect to happen in Belize, given Vulcan’s reputation.


“Our small country could not defend itself against even trumped-up charges in an international court. Why should we have to? Why assume that risk to us and future generations?


“Besides, Vulcan is clearly not a suitable industry for Belize, not at the scale being considered, and certainly not for export. We are building an economy based on agriculture, tourism, technological services, and light manufacturing. We are working to reduce impacts to our beautiful country. . . .


“Thank you for considering these above points and issues. I look forward to a constructive dialog.”


Vulcan plans to submit an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in the near future, reported Amandala. While in Belize, the Vulcan delegation requested a meeting with the Ministry of Sustainable Development. It is unclear whether it was granted such a meeting.

 

Village drummers, including local legends, Emmett Young and Bombay, played under Vulcan's "Community Impact" tent. (Photo by Amandala)

 

“Joyful Resistance” at Gales Point


Vulcan representatives did meet with residents of Gales Point, who sent the clear message that they want nothing to do with Vulcan. Despite the negative response, the company wrote a letter to the people of Gales Point, stating that they have been “energized by the productive conversations” that they had with the residents, according to Amandala (August 27):


“Community members almost immediately shared their exasperation with the meeting’s format to the Vulcan representatives and the media. Several described the separate tents as a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy and voiced dissent to the representatives for what, some felt, was a manipulative tactic to deceive attendees.


“Meanwhile, Vulcan representatives assured them that it considered the three information tents a means to limit a small number of personalities from dominating a ‘town-hall-style’ panel meeting. The community members offered to move the chairs and tents to alter the meeting format, but Vulcan maintained their preference for their original plan, later adding it had hoped to provide greater opportunities to address individual concerns.


“Forty-five minutes after the meeting began, a few of the village’s drummers, including local legends, Emmett Young and Bombay, got out their instruments under the ‘Community Impact’ tent. They played while others danced and sang. For thirty minutes, they transformed a small portion of the event into a joyful resistance, with various elders stepping in for a dance.”



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