Monday, August 12, 2013

Drummond Coal's Cynical Strategy

Coal or just dirty water? A crane dumps material
from a Drummond coal barge into the sea. 
Between the night of Jan. 12 and the morning of the 13th a barge used by Drummond coal started to sink, causing the company to allegedly dumped 500 or more tons of coal into the sea near Santa Marta.

But instead of leading to stricter environmental governance, Drummond's aggressive legal response could hobble Colombian environmental law enforcement.

The spill might never have been revealed at all, if not for the president of the Association of Sick Workers of the Drummond Port (Asotredp), an ex-Drummond employee, who publicized photos of the dumping and alleged that Drummond had dumped coal into the sea several times previously after ignoring the Port captain's orders to cease loading during bad weather.

After the January episode came to light, environmental authorities responded with fury.responded with fury.

"Drummond did not adecuately activate a contingency plan, according to what is established in the management plan, since it did not inform local authorities of the emergency in an opportune and effective manner," said Luz Helena Sarmiento, director of the National Environmental Licenses Agency (ANLA).

Minister of the Environment Juan Gabriel Uribe said that Drummond could be fined almost 3 billion pesos - $1.5 million dollars - and that the company had compounded its violation by delaying reporting the spill.

"They had three days to report what happened, and they violated that term," Uribe said.

Drummond asserted that it had dumped only water mixed with coal into the sea, that it had had had no obligation to report the incident to the ANLA, and that the rest of the coal had actually been transferred to another barge - altho authorities questioned that claim.

Despite the companies' assertions, authorities temporarily suspended its right to ship coal.

One might expect that, in such a situation, Drummond would swallow its medicine and work with environmental authorities to clean up its act and help improve environmental practices - but it doesn't look that way. Instead, on its website the company whines that it "feels like a victim themselves" (sic). And, El Espectador reports, Drummond is using a legal strategy that could permanently hobble environmental law and authorities trying to regulate mining.

On the one hand, according to El Espectador, Drummond has filed a tutela - a legal complaint - claiming that it is not the ANLA but the Maritime Directorate which should be investigating and sanctioning these sorts of environmental violations. That would drastically reduce the possible fines and roll back environmental norms by a decade. And, how many people believe that a Maritime agency would be a vigorous environmental watchdog?

Drummond also filed three other legal complaints accusing the ANLA of violating Drummond's rights and of bias against the company.

The lesson here, if Drummond's strategy succeeds: Don't mess with Drummond, or else your environmental laws will be weakened and your environmental agencies handicapped by charges of unfairness. Colombia's already weak environmental enforcement system could be permanently handicapped further.

Of course, many mining and other companies would smile at that prospect.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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