We are honored to have our partner Diana McCaulay of Jamaica Environment Trust share her thoughts on their great victory cleaning up the Harbour View Sewage Treatment Plant.  Diana worked for many years with ELAW attorneys and scientists on this challenge — and her hard work as finally paid off!  Congratulations to Diana and all the people at JET and in Jamaica who never gave up.

Entrance to the plant

Entrance to the Harbour View Sewage Treatment Plant

Crimes Against Nature

The Harbour View Sewage Treatment Plant was one of the first places I saw, when I became interested in environmental issues back in the late 1980s. I have told this story so many times it feels like something I read. But it is my story. At the time I was working in the insurance industry and I applied for a day off – exchanged my suit and stockings for jeans and water boots – I had no idea what a sewage treatment plant might entail by way of terrain, but I was pretty sure there could be puddles. My escort, Dr. Homero Silva, on secondment to the Ministry of Health in Jamaica from the Pan American Health Organization and much more outspoken than anyone else at the time, took me to the Riverton City dump, and three of Kingston’s non functional sewage plants – Greenwich, Western and Harbour View. And I did need my water boots at Harbour View, because the sewage flowed everywhere, foamy and malodourous, carrying condoms and sanitary pad liners and untreated human excrement right into the sea.

I couldn’t believe it. I mean, who spends any time thinking about what happens when we flush a toilet, we just assume the engineers and contractors and regulators figure it out and we’re not directly responsible for polluting the sea, a river or the ground water several times a day. But there, in front of me on that stinking afternoon was the evidence that we couldn’t rely on engineers and contractors and government regulators. Then, I thought the problem was:  People didn’t know. After all, I hadn’t known. I would tell them.

And so I became a woman who was concerned about sewage plants and garbage dumps and eventually, I gave up my suits and stockings and went around Jamaica on my self-appointed mission of Telling People, initially with blown up photographs of the Harbour View sewage plant, Riverton City and denuded hillsides, then with a slide projector and a script, finally with a laptop and Power Point. I learned I was wrong about the problem – it was true people hadn’t known, but they preferred not to know. What could we do, after all? We just had to hope the engineers and the contractors and the government regulators would decide to do their work.

Fast forward to the late 1990s and the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET) was an Actual Organization and I was its CEO, and we teamed up with the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW), and the MacArthur Foundation to start an environmental law programme in Jamaica.

By then, I was burned out to ash, and the Harbour View Sewage Treatment Plant was still putting its untreated sewage into the sea. Our first Legal Director, Akilah Anderson, started working with the community – there were long years of letter writing and meetings and attempts at mediation and engagement with the press, all utterly unsuccessful. In 2005 we asked the community – will you go to court with us?  They thought about it. And they said no. Folks were afraid – they or their families worked for the Jamaican government, they feared victimization, they didn’t trust the courts, and they knew it would take years.   By then, it had become The Way it Was – if you lived in Harbour View, you smelled sewage, you didn’t use the beach and if your kids disobeyed you and went into the sea, they got sick.

Water flowing near the plant

Why didn’t we file legal action alone? Because I felt part of the problem in Jamaica was the belief that someone else should solve our problems, if not those engineers and contractors and government regulators, then some other figure of authority.   So I said to everyone who asked us for help – we will stand with you, but not in front of you.   Thanks, they said, and hung up the phone.

We never gave up on Harbour View, and in 2006, our second  Legal Director, Danielle Andrade, met two people who lived in the community who were prepared to go to court – Carol Lawton and Michael Williams. Carol was incensed when a representative of the National Water Commission told him that the sewage on the beach was not his concern. Michael’s son got sick after swimming in the sea. And so we started the long process of putting together a legal case, the taking of statements, the writing of affidavits, the soliciting of expert testimony, the researching of precedents and arguments – oh so much photocopying and binding and tabulating and stamping and notarizing – the piles and piles of paper this issue generated!  We sought leave to apply for Judicial Review in the Supreme Court, and it was granted, and by then Danielle had taken a sabbatical from JET to do a Master’s in environmental law, and we contracted attorney Clyde Williams to finish the case with us.

Three weeks before our day in court, we were contacted by the National Water Commission (NWC), the owners and non operators of the plant – they asked if we could resolve the matter “without troubling the court.” And in the end we went to court with a consent agreement which required the NWC to fix the plant, with details and timelines, to report their progress to us, including tours of the works, and declarations from the court that the regulatory agencies – the Kingston and St. Andrew Health Department, the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) and the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) had all failed to carry out their statutory duties.

On July 14th, 2010 I was part of a panel on “All Angles” on Television Jamaica (TVJ). Uncomfortably back in my suit (I hate doing TV), I watched the footage TVJ had taken – of the noxious sewage on the land and the curling surf right there, and even three children swimming in the sea. They interviewed one of the people who had moved onto the site and was living in those unspeakable conditions, she was so young, and she said, she needed materials for the place she would move to and she was sending this message straight to the Prime Minister. And I listened to the jacket-and-tie’d government people on the panel with me make their usual excuses and explanations for their thirty years of neglect, incompetence and willful abdication of their legal mandate.

Boniface church

Boniface Church

“Do you know what the most important thing a person needs in order to work for the Jamaican government?” I asked my colleagues in one of the breaks. “The ability to defend the indefensible,” I told them, not waiting for any expression of interest in my views. I wish I’d said it on air.

“What lesson do you take away from this?” the TV host, Dionne Jackson Miller asked me at the end of the programme.  “Go to court,” I said, trying to remember which camera I was supposed to look at. “It might take years, there are definitely risks, but in the end, that’s all that will bring the engineers and the contractors and the government regulators to the table.”

I haven’t done it yet, but before many days go by, I will go to the beach at Harbour View and look at the crime against nature and humanity that caused me to change my life course, and I hope I will have a moment of satisfaction, as I turn my back to the derelict sewage plant and look out to sea. And I’ll invite the Harbour View citizens, especially Carol and Michael, to come with me…

Diana McCaulay, Chief Executive Officer of Jamaica Environment Trust

(This blog entry was first published on the JET blog)