St. John’s Antigua- The Ministry of Finance is being asked to conduct an immediate investigation into the financial dealings of the Barbuda Council in the wake of news that the body is seriously considering restarting sand mining.
The call comes from outspoken marine biologist and community agitator John Mussington, who accused the council of “total gross incompetence.”
“You’re going to have the nerve to come and tell people ‘we have to do it because we owe people’? That is the extent of the foolishness that the council is saying to us at this point in time,” he said.
“It is untenable and in this situation, I think there needs to be a serious investigation in terms of the accounting system, the environmental damage, and the finances of the council to find out why this foolishness was allowed to continue.”
On Wednesday, council chairman Kelvin Punter said the cessation of sand mining in April this year is now being termed “temporary” as the local government body mulls resuming the operation to settle the debts associated with mining.
Punter estimates the outstanding sum could be as much as $135,000, though it stood at $45,000 two months ago.
This was caused, he said, by the standing arrangement in which the company – K B Supplies – charged on a periodic basis, including for material taken on credit by the council and for conducting landscaping.
According to the chairman, sand mining may be a necessary though not favourable option.
“If we can find the revenue source to take care of these outstanding bills without going back into sand mining, that would be good. But if that’s the only way, I guess we have to bite the bullet and do it,” he said.
“We have to come up with ways to bridge that gap; where is that revenue going to come from? So the council has commissioned a two-person committee, persons from the Finance Committee, to look at the actual operations, see what it was costing us, what it is that we owe the actual operation.”
Sand mining, which began in 1976, generated around $5 million in revenue annually for the council.
It was done initially in Palmetto Point in the south-western tip of the 62-square mile island, then was reportedly shifted in 2006 to around 103 acres in the south-eastern coast.
Mussington said the sand within the area was exhausted the following year, resulting in the council taking a decision to return to Palmetto Point, in spite of serious environment concerns.
“Under the circumstances there was no proper accountability system in place, nothing to ensure that we did not suffer permanent damage that will put us at risk of disasters and climate change and so on,” Mussington said. “So the people who supervised the whole process need to be hauled before investigators and be made to account to the people.”
Punter is not likely to get any support from opposition member Arthur Nibbs, who also leads the Antigua Labour Party branch on the sister isle.
Nibbs said he believes, “Barbuda should be moving away from relying on the mining of sand as a resource because it is not sustainable and it definitely caused and will continue to cause a lot of environmental damage if we continue the sand mining.”
He added, “Whilst I accept the argument of the financial difficulties that the council is having, it would not be solved by a continuation of sand mining. Our annual expenditure is in the region of $12 million so you still have to rely on government; so we should make the break now and try desperately to find alternative sources of revenue.”
The report by the two-member committee appointed to probe the sand-mining costs is expected this week.