A high-profile appeal to block the construction of the controversial Chalillo hydroelectric project in Belize, central America has been thrown out by the UK Privy Council.

Law lords of the Council, the highest court of appeal for countries of the Commonwealth, ruled three to two for the scheme to proceed after postponing their decision initially expected last December.

The case was brought on the grounds that an environmental impact assessment (EIA) commissioned by the Belize Electric Company (BECOL), the developer of the scheme, and carried out on its behalf by engineering and consulting group Amec before the start of construction, allegedly contained a fundamental geological error.

Under the Belizean Environmental Protection Act (EPA), any project that could ‘significantly affect the environment’ has to be subjected to an EIA. This is appraised by a national committee, which in turn advises the Department of the Environment of Belize (DoE) on whether to approve the project.

The bone of contention at the centre of the argument between BECOL, its partner the DoE and a diverse range of opponents headed up by the Belize Alliance of Conservation Non-governmental Organisations (Bacongo) was that the EIA identified the underlying rock type at the site as granite when in fact it was later shown to be sandstone.

In their ruling, the judges said the decision depended on whether it made any significant environmental difference that the valley floor was sandstone rather than granite.

‘No engineer with experience of building dams has said that the classification of the rock is significant as such,’ they stated. The Council pointed out that Bacongo did not dispute that a dam could be built on sandstone, but that doing so would involve factors different to those considered in the original EIA. Yet the majority Council judgement ruled that there was no evidence to show this difference.

They said they did ‘not consider the geological error in the EIA [had been] of such significance as to prevent it from satisfying the requirements of the [EPA] of forming a proper basis for approval by the DoE.’

The ruling was immediately welcomed by Fortis, BECOL’s Canadian-based parent company.

‘New generation sources are critical to meet the growing energy demand of the country of Belize,’ said Stan Marshall, president and CEO of Fortis. ‘More stable electricity costs can only be realised by reducing exposure to volatile, international oil prices. The Chalillo project is the lowest cost energy supply source available to Belize.’


New generation sources are critical to meet the growing energy demand of the country of Belize

Chalillo’s opponents had also argued that at 7.3MW rated capacity, the scheme would not generate enough electricity to justify its environmental impact.

Construction of the 49.5m high dam on Belize’s Upper Macal river will flood close to 1000ha of land on the border between the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve and the Chiquibul National Park, which is home to a number of rare and endangered species including jaguars, pumas, crocodiles, tapirs and macaws.

The opposition found some comfort in the words of the minority dissent voiced by Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe and Lord Steyn.

The two pulled no punches in their dissenting judgement, saying that BECOL and the DoE had failed in their duty of disclosure of facts to the Chief Justice of Belize in April 2002, the Court of Appeal in March 2003 and the Board in July 2003.

They agreed that the sandstone bedrock would be a satisfactory foundation for a dam, but only if the new geological information was considered in the design. They criticised BECOL for withholding information about the changes in design from the public, adding: ‘not even the most protracted and determined paper chase could have got at the true facts.’

Lord Walker said he would have allowed the appeal and quashed the DoE’s decision to grant environmental clearance for the project.

‘I would have done so on the ground that the EIA was so flawed by important errors about the geology of the site as to be incapable of satisfying the requirements of the EPA and the [EIA] Regulations.’

Fortis now expects work on the dam to be completed by 2005.

New generation sources are critical to meet the growing energy demand of the country of Belize