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May 8, 2018

O.W. on Alert after Fish Kill Exposed in New River

Residents of Orange Walk Town and surrounding villages are on alert tonight as the New River has suffered another fish kill. Hundreds of river fish such as tilapia and tarpon came up dead and floating in the last few days, though most have now been scavenged by river birds such as the white egret. At this point it is apparently an almost-annual occurrence and the culprit is an unknown toxic substance overflowing from nearby ponds into the river. The finger of blame has been pointed at the Tower Hill Sugar Factory, but they say they are presently conducting an investigation. News Five’s Aaron Humes traveled north today to find out more.

 

Aaron Humes, Reporting

Despite its name, the New River has been around for a long time. It is the longest river located entirely in Belize and has become known for its scenic views and link to the ancient Maya city of Lamanai. Veteran tour guide Antonio Novelo knows it well.

 

Antonio Novelo, Tour Guide

“We navigate upriver, that New River, which is a scenic river if we want to compare with other rivers in Central America. Because I have seen rivers in Guatemala – no wildlife. Our water lilies, our birds; different kinds of plants – bromelias, lichens, epiphytes, orchids, we expect to see during the course of the river, so it’s a scenic New River we have here in Orange Walk Town.”

 

But on our visit today it didn’t look so beautiful. Indeed, for the past few years residents of Sugar City and other villages which the river passes through on the way to Corozal Bay have avoided it for recreation and especially fishing. The reason is a near-annual problem we have reported on before – the apparent dumping of toxic chemical waste from nearby ponds, especially during the dry season. This time, it has caused the sudden death of hundreds of river fish and chased away other forms of wildlife, hurting the district’s tourism business.

 

Vladimir Novelo

Vladimir Novelo, Tour Guide

“From where the Toll Bridge is, to the factory, the water is completely normal – no milky water; it’s completely normal, no fishes are dying. But from the factory down is where all the fishes are dying, all the milky water and the stuff popping out of the ground. So it perhaps could be the factory that is dashing hot water or maybe chemicals mixed with hot water, into the river.”

 

Aaron Humes

“You’re referring, of course, to the Tower Hill Sugar Factory?”

 

Vladimir Novelo

“Yeah. From the Tower Hill factory on down is where the problem is – hot water and the fishes dying.”

 

Aaron Humes

“So you’re a tour guide – you take people to Lamanai and places along the river. So how has that affected your business in terms of people getting into the water and so?”

 

Vladimir Novelo

“We don’t normally advise to go into the water [because] of the crocodiles and so. But we have seen a decrease of amount of wildlife, for example the crocodiles. I’m a free lance guide, and the crocodiles – sometimes back then we would have seen ten, fifteen crocodiles – small, medium, big; now we see one, two, [they’re] babies.”

 

Both Vladimir Novelo and his uncle Antonio seem to point fingers at American Sugar Refining/Belize Sugar Industries Limited, which has been accused at least twice before. When we reached out to A.S.R./B.S.I. for comment, they issued a statement indicating that they got news of the situation on Saturday, May fifth, and immediately notified the Department of the Environment of their intention to conduct a survey to investigate the report. The Department is scheduled to visit Tower Hill to follow up and B.S.I. is collaborating with the Department in the investigation and potential response. But Antonio Novelo told us he can’t think of whom else it could be.

 

Antonio Novelo

Antonio Novelo

“This occurs every year at least once, and occasionally we’ve had it twice, where this pollution emitted by – we say it’s B.S.I., that’s who we point fingers at, causing this problem for decades. I’m just sorry for the people who live along the banks of the New River, that they’re affected, because that smell is nothing to be happy [about]. If you’re navigating, you don’t want to touch that water which is warm, and possibly you could get some infection on your skin; you would have to go see the dermatologist, which is an expense. But that is not good for people living on the banks of the New River.”

 

It goes without saying that the fish is not safe to consume, and most people don’t. But will there ever be a serious resolution to this ongoing problem? Aaron Humes reporting for News Five.

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