Probe: Handling of Rubis fuel leak lacked “productive momentum”

Probe revealed in HOA, more than four years after its commission

An independent review into the cause of the delayed release of a Black and Veatch report on a Rubis gasoline leak, which occurred in late 2012, indicates that the handling of the report and its eventual release to the public lacked “productive momentum”.

That probe conducted by retired Justice Joseph Strachan was tabled in the House of Assembly yesterday, more than four years after the Christie administration directed the independent review.

The fuel leak occurred at Rubis Bahamas Limited’s service station on Robinson and Old Trail Roads.

Black and Veatch concluded in its report that residents who lived near Rubis and people who worked in adjacent buildings were exposed to chemicals that could create health risks.

That report was completed in February 2014.

The government sat on that report for over a year.

It finally released the report on April 17, 2015, a day after a town meeting with concerned residents and business owners in the area, who largely expressed outrage over the matter.

In his report, Strachan said although the narrative of certain timelines remained unstated, having regard to the fuel leak and the aftermath, including the engagement on Black and Veatch, it was “crucially important” for the government to “timeously and effectively” satisfy any obligation of those affected sooner rather than later; whether or not the Rubis report had been thoroughly critiqued.

“Of course, due consideration must be given first to the remit, the requests, and the reality that some key components of the process broke new ground in The Bahamas, as evidence by, among other things, the absence of a shared predetermined action plan to deal with an inland gasoline spill and the contents of Cabinet’s direction,” the report read.

“Second, to the availability of the requisite competencies of time to prepare for meetings and participate in them, which tends, if nothing more, to contribute to delay.

“Even so, the fact that it took from the 14 [of] July 2014 to have the BVI released (immediately after the April town meeting, 2015) is, as a matter of first impression, exceptional an attracts an explanation.”

Strachan said the date of the Cabinet meeting which resulted in the directive to the Office of the Attorney General, which was referred to in a June 2014 email, could not be ascertained with precision.

He noted that in an April 2, 2014, email, the permanent secretary recalled that the Black and Veatch report, referred to as the BVI, had been on Cabinet’s agenda on three separate occasions — April 8, 15, and 22.

He said that directive had bearing on the commencement of the request/response process.

According to the report, the Office of the Attorney General convened meetings with Black and Veatch participants, BEST (Bahamas Environment Science and Technology Commission) and others from December 2014 in a “proactive, inclusive and collaborative approach”.

Strachan said, however, that taking that approach earlier would have enhanced the management of the process by moving it forward more efficiently.

He also raised questions over a lack of consistency in the documented narrative of the timeline of events.

For example, records reflect a meeting to discuss the remediation plans undertaken by Rubis occurred on July 14 and July 21.

Details from both events state that it was during that meeting the attorney general became aware of the Black and Veatch report.

The Ministry of the Environment first requested on July 30, 2014, to review draft letters containing recommendations, which the ministry contemplated sending to Cable and Rubis.

It was revealed in July 2014 that Cable undertook legal action against Rubis, seeking damages for alleged negligence which resulted in its property being contaminated by the fuel leak.

It was not until August 22, 2014, that AG’s Office advised the ministry to release the recommendations to both companies.

There was a request to release the Black and Veatch report to the Pan American Health Organization on November 10. That was followed through on just over a month later.

A draft on November 21, 2014 advised releasing the report to residents in the affected areas and on the legal steps that ought to be taken by the government.

However, the attorney general withheld approval of the release on December 15.

Inter-agency and ministerial meetings were conducted as of December 22 to discuss what work was to be done by each agency represented and the timeline for the works.

At a February 12, 2015, meeting, there was a recommendation to hold a town meeting to provide information to residents affected.

That meeting proceeded on April 16, 2015.

At that meeting, BEST Director Philip Weech said the report had not been released because the attorney general had not given the go-ahead to do so.

“The above narrative, like that of the prior narrative (of MPS and emails) may well be described, before December 2014 as lacking in productive momentum,” Strachan said in his report.

“It also tends to support the provisional observations about what would, quite predictably, with the exception of the issues raised by Cable, lead the charge.”

Strachan also noted that had the town meeting been held earlier, as previously advised, “it may have well quickened the pace of introducing, as happened, an acceptable outcome”.

“What was decisive in bringing about the decision to so disclose is unclear,” read the report.

“But as gleaned from the record, it appears that exposure of the government to actual and/or perceived liability issues were controlling contributors to prior disclosure being, with the exception to the full content of the letter to Cable and Rubis, generally limited to BVI’s recommendations only.

In May 2015, the Christie administration expressed “sincere regret” for failing to release the report sooner.

Later on that year, the government announced that residents of Marathon had a “clean bill of health” based on all remediation efforts undertaken, including screenings, samples taken in 2014 and 2015, and the assessment of international bodies such as the Pan American Health Organization (PHAO).

The government pledged to introduce legislation in Parliament to enhance public safety and environmental protection, including the creation of the Department of Environmental Planning and Protection.

In July 2016, then Minister of Education Jerome Fitzgerald, the Marathon MP at the time, who came under heavy criticism for failing to advise his constituents of the Black and Veatch report, said he had no regrets over the government’s handling of the matter involving the delayed release of the report into the fuel leak.

He said he believed it was handled properly and “everything the government did, it did in an expeditious manner”.

When asked in April 2015 why he did not advise his constituents about the report he had read in 2014, Fitzgerald said he would have been fired on the spot as there was no way he could discuss what occurs in Cabinet, especially if “a direction was taken and the direction was for it to rest with the attorney general’s office”.