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Tuesday, May 02, 2006 

2nd May
Gov’t Accused Of “Shirking” Responsibility In AUTEC Meeting
By Erica Wells

Government ministers who met with AUTEC officials last week amid growing concern that activity at the US military base may be harmful to residents’ health and the surrounding marine environment are being accused of "shirking" their responsibility to represent the Bahamian people, "again."

Environmental activists Sam Duncombe and Margo Blackwell said that while they were "incredibly" saddened they were not surprised by the reported responses given by Marine Resources Minister Leslie Miller and Environment Minister Dr. Marcus Bethel following Thursday’s meeting.

"Again on issues of the environment, both [ministers] Miller and Bethel have shown the Bahamian public that they have neither the need nor the capacity to incorporate information, knowledge and the voices of wishes of the Bahamian people in the decisions they make," said the activists in a joint statement.

"These two ministers are responsible for two of the most important ministries that look over our environment – marine resources, and energy and environment."

The activists were referring to a meeting held last Thursday at the AUTEC base in Central Andros to address concerns that testing carried out by the facility in Bahamian waters could be behind a series of whale strandings in the area, reports of depleted fish stocks and reports of serious health concerns.

Local activists and residents are particularly concerned about sonar testing, which was found to be behind the strandings and deaths of whales and dolphins in the Abacos in 2000, although they were not specifically linked to AUTEC.

Last week’s meeting was called after a second whale death in Central Andros, in just over a month, sparked a call for the government to put a stop to all testing in the Tongue of the Ocean until it could be determined what was behind the strandings. Weeks later, a third whale was found dead in the same area, in addition to the two whale deaths recorded in the Abacos over the same period.

The strandings have become a major concern for Andros residents who fear that operations at AUTEC may have something to do with what some have described as a "great change" in the marine environment.

A small group of those residents, incuding Mrs. Blackwell who is the director of the Bahamas Environmental Research Centre on the island, protested outside the base near Fresh Creek on Thursday as ministers and selected members of the Bahamian media toured the facility.

The residents have a long list of questions for AUTEC and government officials, and want to known why Mrs. Blackwell’s and Mrs. Duncombe’s invitations to the base on Thursday were withdrawn, and why officials scheduled to attend the meeting did not meet with residents first to learn of their specific concerns related to the base.

According to media reports of the press briefing held after the meeting [The Bahama Journal was not accommodated on last Thursday’s press trip arranged by the US Embassy], it appeared that a lot of questions are still left unanswered.

AUTEC [Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Centre] is a comprehensive undersea warfare systems test complex and has been the US Navy’s East Coast in-water range of choice for more than 30 years.

The government receives $10.8 million annually from the US to operate the base in Andros. The contract between The Bahamas and the US is up for renewal every 10 years and its next renewal is for January 2007.

Bahamas Information Services has reported that both Ministers Miller and Bethel "expressed satisfaction following ‘very good in depth discussions’ with US officials on the operation of the AUTEC base in Andros."

Dr. Bethel said that while officials did not receive answers to every question, a process is being set up to ensure that answers, "as they become available are made public in terms of what concerns may exist."

According to BIS, the meeting adopted four proposals – to examine the collaboration between the agencies of the Ministry of Health working with AUTEC health agencies on any health implications at the base; to have the BEST commission and the Ministry of Agriculture investigate any possible marine implications of any work going on around the base; to work with the BEST commission on coastal marine management – how the reef system may or may not be impacted; and it was agreed that a series of town meetings would be held to "inform the public as to what goes on at AUTEC."

However, local activists are disappointed with the government’s response.

"Instead of making a decision that errs on behalf of the environment, it is business as usual," Mrs. Duncombe and Mrs. Blackwell said in the statement. "Never mind that they have been advised that the whales that stranded are endangered and have rarely been known to strand except when disturbed and that the entire balance of our ocean is in peril."

The activists took particular issue with Dr. Bethel’s reported view that to stop testing in the Tongue of the Ocean would be "unfairly indicting AUTEC."

"What is fair to the whales? The people? The fish? When they are gone, they are gone," said the joint statement.

"If AUTEC is able to show that they are not responsible and agree to act responsibly, then and only then should a minister of The Bahamas government allow them to continue."

The activists pointed out that the scientific evidence from the US government’s National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration [NOAA] and the US Navy have agreed that there is a correlation between whale deaths and sonar/military activity.

"If it isn’t clear to the ministers, it is certainly clear to the people that have informed themselves. One has to wonder if they ever read the Natural Resource Defense Council [NRDC] briefing we sent them to assist in preparation for the AUTEC meeting," said the statement.
"When they choose to err on the side of AUTEC, regardless of what the science around the world is telling us, we have to ask some hard questions about who is making decisions in our country."

The activists said that the strandings in The Bahamas in 2000 should be all that is needed to prove that sonar testing in our oceans has "killed, maimed and destroyed" and the burden of proof must be on AUTEC.

They want AUTEC to be made to release data of when testing occurred at the base to determine whether the recent strandings in Andros and in Abaco coincide with those tests.

"Until they are able to prove they are not responsible we need to, as stewards of the Earth, as a self professed Christian nation, to err on the side of these magnificent and endangered animals," said the activists.

"Marcus Bethel and Leslie Miller have yet to meet with the people to assure them that they understand not only our concerns, but also that they understand the consensus among scientists around the world, and their responsibility to present and future Bahamians."

The Bahama Journal - Bahamas News Online Edition
Copyright Jones Communications Ltd. ©2005 - Nassau, Bahamas.

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