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Jun 15, 2006

Belmopan oil drilling brings heat from residents

Story PictureIn a half century of drilling for petroleum, all fifty wells turned out to be duds. Now we’re hearing about oil–and oil fever–from north to south. The latest hot spot is in the heartland of the country; nothing less than the nation’s capital. But as News Five’s Janelle Chanona reports, not everyone is jumping for joy.

Janelle Chanona, Reporting
After successful strikes in Spanish Lookout, Belize Natural Energy has now begun work in Belmopan.

But instead of starting from scratch, B.N.E. has decided to reopen oil wells that had been drilled and abandoned in 1983. Both sites are located in the Rivera area on the outskirts of the capital city, one off a feeder road in the Oasis neighbourhood called Roaring Creek number two, and a second, near the Belmopan Water Treatment Plant called Eagle One.

According to Virgil Welch, Drilling and Production Manager of B.N.E, the idea is to tap into the existing well to find out what, if anything, is at the other end.

Virgil Welch, Drilling and Production Manager, Belize Natural Energy
?It?s a safety hazard as it is right now, according to the records we have, we don?t show any plugs above eight hundred feet. At the time in 1983, it might have been up to standards but it?s not up to today?s standards. So the intent for Roaring Creek number two after testing the zone of interest is to plug and abandon according to modern day international standards.?

According to Belize Natural Energy, whether oil is found at either of these sites or not, the wells will be capped and safely abandoned. The thing is the company says if the presence of petroleum is detected, it will mean drilling new holes. And that is where the controversy starts to bubble up.

Bobby Lopez, Rivera Resident
?Come on man, let?s have a life and let?s draw the line somewhere.?

Bobby Lopez is a resident in the Rivera area and the cofounder of VanGuard, an association of concerned citizens who are against any oil related activity within the city limits.

Bobby Lopez
?We the residents of Rivera, would rather keep such an activity out of the city and where people live. There are too many adverse effects that come with such activity and we cannot cry after the fact, like what Spanish Lookout is doing now. The burning eyes, the smell, you know the headaches, of course the noise and the extra traffic. I?m not against this development, I am against it within residential areas. Keep it out in the rural areas where it won?t affect anyone.?

The de la Rosa family says they woke up one morning and found an oil rig on their doorstep. It?s a new reality that one year old Brian has had to get used to. The little boy had used the formerly vacant lot as his playground and on Wednesday he wandered into the site unnoticed. Luckily his older brother spotted him and saved him from possible danger. To avoid accidents, when we visited the area this morning, B.N.E. had begun construction of a fence.

But for VanGuard, the incident simply bolsters their argument. Earlier this week, the organization prepared a petition, asking the Belmopan City Council to stop work at the site and calling for a public forum on the issue.

Simeon Lopez, Mayor, Belmopan City Council
?We are not going to give any permission unless our people are well informed and well taken care of. The health hazards will not be there to affect any of them. We have to monitor very closely. I want the people to realize and to know that the Belmopan City Council is committed to protect their health and welfare.?

According to Belmopan Mayor Simeon Lopez, B.N.E. has committed to conduct a public relations campaign in the capital. But the company stresses it might not even come to that.

Virgil Welch
?If the zone of interest proves positive we would request permission to do so. If it doesn?t prove positive, no we won?t even ask for permission.?

But looking at the Spanish Lookout experience and the SATIIM constitutional challenge, just how much permission would B.N.E. have to get before it can drill?

Francis Fonseca, Attorney General
?The government has a right, a legal right to grant a license to any company to carry out drilling, anywhere in our country. The question is whether or not that drilling would be done following the law. There?s another set of laws that you have to look at, in terms of environmental impact. And that is where the challenge could arise.?

And that is where the challenge has arisen for Belize Natural Energy in relation to its plans for Belmopan. According to a letter copied to the Mayor of Belmopan by Chief Environmental Officer Martin Alegria, the oil company must stop its work at Roaring Creek until an environmental impact assessment is completed.

The timing of that order is unfortunate for B.N.E. as it had planned to complete drilling and capping by Monday.

Reporting for News Five, I am Janelle Chanona.

At newstime we were told that company officials would be meeting with the Chief Environmental Officer on Friday morning.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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