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Jamaican Officials Ready to Dredge Kingston Harbor

One of the world’s largest and deepest natural harbors will be dredged starting later this year.

Jamaican leaders say they are in the process of planning a major dredging project for the Kingston Harbour, the seventh largest natural harbor in the world, home to the Kingston Container Terminal, an international airport, and docks for several large shipping companies.

The harbor is about 14 meters deep – 46 feet. But the planned dredging project would deepen it to about 17 meters – nearly 56 feet, and would help it to better accommodate some of the New Panamax-sized ships that will be traversing the expanded Panama Canal within a few years.

Though government officials have talked about improving the Kingston Harbour for years, the Port Authority of Jamaica finally began converting such talk into action late last year, when it began identifying financing, preparing technical work, and making plans to solicit international bids for the dredging.

In January, the leader of Government Business in the Jamaican Senate and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, Hon. A.J. Nicholson, made the issue newsworthy again when he said in a senate hearing that dredging should begin by the third quarter of this year.

Some six dredging companies had submitted pre-qualifying documents for the project by December, and the Jamaican government has already begun reviewing them. Government officials are also in talks with two overseas institutions, plus the PetroCaribe Development Fund to finance the project.

“The dredging of the Kingston Harbour is a priority of the government and is critical to the development and expansion of the Kingston Container Terminal and shipping services, to take advantage of expected opportunities from the completed expansion of the Panama Canal,” Senator Nicholson said in a government release after the meeting.

The dredging should be complete by 2014.

Meanwhile, the government is also purchasing other equipment to populate its planned expanded port, Nicholson said. He said there are plans to acquire three container handling cranes, 11 straddle carriers and six road heads later this year.

But there are some concerns from environmentalists about the project. Though most agree that the dredging is an economic necessity, they worry that the project could stir up old pollution. Since the 1970s, it’s been widely known that the harbor is heavily polluted. More recent research has found the levels of pollution have only gotten worse.

Environmentalist Dr. David Smith told the Inter Press Service News Agency that much careful consideration must be given to how to dispose of the dredged material.

“Since one of the proposals was to dispose of it on the deep side of the coral reefs, there was definitely concern there, and also concern if you’re going to place it on land, because the stuff is poisonous,” he said.

Also, the harbor is surrounded by cays with sensitive coral reefs, which a poorly conducted dredging project could damage, environmentalists said.

Environmentalists also say that the exercise might not have been necessary at all, if not for a poor decision made in the 1960s to build a causeway across the harbor. The causeway connected Kingston and neighboring suburb Portmore, which allowed greater development in the area. However, the 1969 construction narrowed the opening into Hunts Bay, reducing circulation through the harbor, environmental consultant Dr. Barry Wade told the Inter Press News Agency.

“Once the causeway was put in as it was, it is almost inevitable that dredging would have to take place in Hunts Bay and Kingston Harbour for as long as the causeway remained in place, so what we’re talking about is a natural consequence of what went wrong in the 1960s and early 1970s,” he said.

Government environmental leaders were tight-lipped about responding to these concerns, telling IDR that they could not respond while the project application is still being processed. They said they had no details about environmental concerns and that an environmental impact review had not been conducted.

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