By Patrick Martin, MD, Student & Resident Citizen
Adopting principle is an indispensable guide to resolving issues. In governing, one way to save face is to submit to introspection then invoke principle and humbly walk back an electioneering promise that was not informed by thorough analysis.
Scientific principle underpinned the three levels of expert environmental health assessment conducted at BHS, Victoria Road. The strengths and opportunities so outweighed the weaknesses and threats that NIOSH made unequivocal recommendations including to stop soil testing. NIOSH is an environmental health authority *par excellence*. Its findings and conclusions should trump conjecture and associated “fire and fury”.
A well-known principle says “Prevention is better than cure”. Prevention is also cheaper. A program of preventive maintenance would have limited the $15 – 20 million spent on remediation and temporary buildings.
Sustainability is a principle related to environmental protection. The “BHS is contaminated” saga has heightened public awareness of environmental and occupational health issues associated with building and buildings. There is deeper appreciation of the profound value of risk and impact assessments.
Also, coming into sharper public focus is the future of sewage treatment, not only in Basseterre, but nationwide. While septic tanks are safe and effective sewage systems, drinking water sources can be contaminated because of improper location, poor design, faulty construction, incorrect operation and poor or no maintenance (epa.gov/septic).
The proposed new BHS in Pond’s Estate poses a risk of fecal contamination of the underlying aquifer which is already under the threat of salt water intrusion. There is also the possibility that locating a centralized sewage plant near residential areas can lead to legal action and political disquiet if the facility produces unpleasant odours such as hydrogen sulphide and ammonia.
In the circumstances, the precautionary principle and erring on the side of caution make sense. The former states that in the absence of scientific consensus that a policy or action is *not* harmful, the burden of proof falls on the proponents of the policy or action. The latter means choosing the safer course of action instead of taking a risk.
Going forward, the inescapable first step is the conduct of risk and impact assessments. Without them, one cannot scientifically and conclusively estimate the environmental, social and financial costs of a constructing new BHS over the aquifer or anywhere else.
However, at Victoria Road, decision-makers and the public can rely on the expertise, credibility and recommendations of NIOSH. The mold, sewer and uncleanliness issues are surmountable. It should not cost $40 million to complete refurbishment by mid-September.
Human, animal and agricultural activity increases the risk of industrial chemical and sewage seepage into an underlying aquifer. Therefore, government should rush to safeguard Pond’s/Needsmust as “the mother of all protected areas” in the Federation. This will be in accordance with the 2009 scientific report prepared for the Water Services Department by Ocean Earth Technologies Consortium (available online). Chief among its
recommendations is the establishment of a national park in Pond’s/Needsmust
with six management goals. Top of the list is to “Protect the water aquifer in the Basseterre Valley”.
The big picture is water security – a principle and a life or death matter. The Basseterre Valley Aquifer supplies 40% of the drinking water in St. Kitts. It is “too big to fail”.
All waters in and around the Federation are our livelihood. These precious and irreplaceable gifts from nature must be protected by legislation and force of arms.
Patrick Martin MD
Pediatrician & Physician Executive
Basseterre, St. Kitts & Nevis
“I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on
trying” – Nelson Mandela