Liberia: EPA's Restoration Order Disregarded?



-As Fengshou International completes 2.0 road in Marshall Wetland in Margibi County-

The expansion of the Roberts International Airport (RIA) Highway has raised grave environmental concerns due West of the project site, in Ben Town, Lower Margibi County. 

Fengshou International, a Chinese-owned rock quarry, in January 2023 built a red mud pathway through the Marshall wetland to allow the trucking of crushed rocks to the project site. 

Public outcry ensued, as the surrounding fishing community saw declining catches and the overall degradation of the wetland's wildlife. 

Ben Town is a small community situated just minutes from the Sheifflin Military Barracks, where the Marshall road splits from the RIA Highway. The town sits at the base of a U-shaped area, which the Junk River creates as it meets the Highway at two points. In that concave is the wetland, skirting the edge of the highway.

Fengshou created the road to cross the river and the surrounding wetland in a straight line to more rapidly access the highway. Its stated intent, according to a statement by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is to haul crushed rocks to the road construction site. The site in question covers the four-mile stretch between ELWA Junction and Thinker’s Village in Paynesville, due 14 miles North of Ben Town. 

The makeshift road obstructs wildlife inflow from the Junk. Says nearby fisherman Joseph Tarnue, "The fish and crawfish have not been able to move from the river and run into the mangrove.” 

"Before, when you pass here, you will see crocodiles and their babies, but now you can't see any," added Tony Johnson, another fisherman.

Marshall hosts one of five wetlands protected under the 1971 Ramsar Convention, to which Liberia is a signatory. The rest are in Montserrado, Nimba, Grand Cape Mount, and Bong Counties. Rasmar provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and optimal use of wetlands and their resources. 

In their healthiest state, wetlands are home to thousands of land and water plants, and animals. And they provide nearby communities with fish, fresh air, and safe drinking water. Wetlands can also provide flood protection, improved water quality, reduced shoreline erosion, recreational opportunities, and aesthetic value. But protected status seems to have done little to achieve the potential of Liberia’s wetlands. 

Liberia's wetlands are under threat from poor management and unsustainable socio economic activity. These areas, Marshall included, are now dumping sites, water sources for makeshift car washes, illegal fishing and sand mining, according to the Rasmar website. With pollution from the surrounding industries - oil refineries and paint factories - exacerbating the already poor condition of the protected areas, the construction of a mud road through the waterways can only deal a death blow to the wildlife and the commercial fisheries depending on them. 

The EPA has, therefore, taken note. Imposing a US$150,000 fine on Fengshou International and its parent company, EAST International, the agency mandated them to remove the blockage and restore the wetland to its initial state. 

For Tarnue and a few fishermen in Marshall and Ben’s town, whose livelihoods have taken a hit by the blockage in the waterway, it was about time the EPA showed its teeth. But to their shock, the company went on to complete, rather than dismantle, the mud road. It proceeded with its rock trucking activity, resulting in the flooding of nearby households, as the obstructed waters found other means of release. This begs the question of whether the company ever paid the fine. EPA has not yet confirmed that it has.

In an email to the Daily Observer, on Friday, March 5, 2023, the EPA claimed it had not been notified about the completion of the haul road, but that it had been aware of the company's desire to build it, before the backfilling began. 

“The EPA got a written commitment that the wetland will be restored," said a spokesperson for the agency. "East International/ Fengshou International Rock Quarry, through the Ministry of Public Works (MPW), wrote the commitment letter to the EPA assuring that the restoration order will be implemented when the purpose of the haul road is completed. The haul road is only intended for the company to haul materials for the construction of the Robertsfield Highway.”

The EPA claims it had denied EAST International's permit request to construct the road in the wetland. The company, hired by the Government of Liberia to expand the two-lane RIA Highway, had argued that the makeshift passage would speed up the highway road works. EPA said it had issued a warning to desist. But EAST International has continued to operate, despite the agency's claim that it had shut down construction activities at the company's site.

This chain of events raises questions about the EPA's efficacy as a custodian and a partial enforcer of environmental law. Unauthorized backfilling of wetlands is a violation of the Environmental Protection and Management Law of Liberia. Furthermore, the act establishing the EPA empowers it to impose penalties for violation of the law or its subordinate regulations.    

Section 56 of the Act imposes a "general penalty" of maximum US$50,000 and/or up to ten years in jail for violations not already assigned a specific punishment elsewhere in the legislation. While the fine EPA imposed on the Chinese construction outfit is three times that amount, the punitive action falls short of its intended effect.

A second question arises as to whether the government involves the EPA in its infrastructure development discussions, prior to and during project implementation. The EPA's statements and punitive actions against EAST International despite MPW's request for a permit to - at least temporarily - violate environmental law shows no small disconnect between the two entities. 

As if to belabor this point, the Daily Observer's recent visit to the site showed an EPA stop order marked in green. But this is not enough for the surrounding communities, who see no indication that legal proceedings are underway.

Ezekiel Ben, Ben's town chief, said there was no notice from the company or EPA that would duly answer their grievances. 

"The company is a setback to our town. We are suffering in their hands," he said. "We asked them but they say the government gave the area to them."

Neither Fengshou nor its parent company, EAST International, could be reached for comment. The Daily Observer's correspondent visited the company's office in Ben Town and Samuel Kanyon Doe community for a response.

At the Ben Town office, the head of security gave us a phone number for a deputy manager whom he only identified as William. Our reporter called William and explained the purpose of the visit. William immediately hung up and has not answered calls or responded to text messages.

Meanwhile, this short road blockage in the Junk River has had far-reaching implications. 

"The EPA has failed to come to our aid and the company has taken advantage of that," said Solomon Frank, a fisherman in Kpor Town. Kpor Town is a two-hour drive from Ben Town, through the Monrovia-Kakata Highway, into Paynesville and up the RIA Highway toward the airport.

It is at least ten miles due northeast, across the Mesurado River from Ben. The Mesurado flows another 12 miles south from Ben Town to Marshall city, before it splits into the Junk and the Farmington.

Frank says his colleagues in other towns are unable to fish or ride their canoes across the Junk River, because the road has divided the area. "Most of our friend's canoes are left on the other side of the road. No way to cross over," he said.  

He accuses the EPA and the Land Commission of siding with the company and accepting brides from them. The EPA gave no response to that claim. 

Tony Brown, Marshall Land Commissioner refuted the allegations, claiming that the local government is not responsible for constructing roads, but the ministry of public works. 

“I am the head of the local government’s head so I can't construct roads. Road construction should be done by Public Works.” 

 According to him, when the company was completing the road he reported the matter to the EPA and the entity sent its operational team to the site, but they were surprised to see the company completing the road. 

The citizens also accused Brown of accepting bribes from the company to allow them carry out the violation.

“How much Chinese man give Tony Brown,” he asked? Five dollars they did not give me. They did it and they were dealing with upstairs [High Authority].