Hundreds of people packed Grace Community Church hall last night for a town meeting that took on a deeply divisive political tone, which at times drowned out concerns being expressed by frustrated Marathon residents over a Rubis gasoline leak in their area. It was clear that many people at the meeting supported Marathon MP Jerome Fitzgerald, who has faced intense heat in the last two weeks for failing to inform his constituents of the contents of a consultants report which warned that the spill posed health risks to residents and people who work near the Rubis gas station on Robinson Road.
The spill occurred in late 2012/early 2013, according to the report by Black & Veatch. The government received the report in February 2014, but only made it public on April 17, 2015, a day after angry residents expressed their disapproval at a town meeting. At the end of last night's meeting, some in attendance shouted, "Jerome Fitzgerald will be re-elected the next MP for Marathon" and "Who cares? Fitzgerald cares". Others cheered in agreement.
Unlike the town meeting held on the issue on April 16, Fitzgerald and Environment Minister Kenred Dorsett both spoke to the audience last night. Fitzgerald sat in the front row with supporters. Dorsett was a member of the panel along with Dr. Sy Coolidge Pierre; former Minister of State for the Environment Phenton Neymour and environmental lawyer Romauld Ferreira.
Alphonso Smith, a resident of Regency Park for nearly 50 years, was booed when he attempted to ask Fitzgerald how long he knew about the leak.
"You are the representative for the Marathon constituency and you've been that for three years, sir," Smith said. "How many times have you been in this area? None. This is the first time I've seen you in Marathon in three years.
"Mr. Fitzgerald, you are not fit to represent the people of Marathon. We, the people of Marathon Estates want you to tender your resignation to the governor general."
Smith was booed off the microphone with many shouting "shut up" and "he's an FNM".
Katrina Livingston said that a year ago she discovered that she had cancer in her blood.
"They came and tested my well water and no one ever came back to me," she said. "I had cancer in 2005. I didn't have to take chemotherapy or radiation. But a year ago, I now have to go every two months because they found cancer in my blood."
Steven Plakaris thanked attendees at the meeting who live in other communities, but said he is "directly affected" by the spill and was very concerned that the government did not release the report sooner.
"I listened to the facts being presented. Obviously, I'm seeing red right now," he said. "The [report] said that persons in the area would be affected and that they needed to be informed. That is in black andwhite. It went to the various leaders. The leaders read it, sat down, looked at it and said, 'I don't live there.'
"Then a year later you want to tell me, in no uncertain terms, that I shouldn't be concerned. For a year and a half my family, my friends and neighbors were drinking and living in the area. You have to be joking.
"If we have to wait for any more reports to come forward, I would like to welcome those from both sides to come and drink our water.
"Come and eat my food and drink my water and bathe in the same water that I use. Then you can tell me to be patient. When you can do that I know you care; otherwise you go back home.
"This was an accident, I know that. But accidents mean that people have a right to know. We are not ignorant. Please let us know what is going to be done now, not 10 months later or five months later."
As the meeting progressed with passions increasing by the minute, large crowds gathered outside the hall as they could not get into the meeting. Many others showed up and left after they could not get in. Others crowded the windows peering in, hoping to hear what was being said. Many arrived in buses, but it was not clear who paid for those buses. Outside the meeting the discussion over the matter also raged.
Among those in attendance were political operatives from both the Progressive Liberal Party and the Free National Movement (FNM) and various community activists. FNM Leader Dr. Minnis sat quietly listening to the presentations and the questions and answers that followed.
Also in attendance were FNM Chairman Michael Pintard, Montagu MP Richard Lightbourn, former House Speaker Alvin Smith and former FNM MP Brensil Rolle. Smith and Rolle were among those who could not get inside the crowded meeting.
When Fitzgerald walked into the town meeting, he was greeted with a near standing ovation from those in attendance.
Fitzgerald told The Nassau Guardian recently that he would have been fired had he told his constituents what was in the Black & Veatch report because the report had been brought to Cabinet and turned over to the attorney general.
Last night, Fitzgerald appeared confident as he addressed the crowd.
"Marathon, I want to say that I find it truly unfortunate that this situation has been imbedded with partisan speculation, political jockeying and scare tactics, especially when the well being of those affected ought to be central to our discourse," Fitzgerald told the room filled with a mix of supporters, residents and media personalities.
"I am advised that there are already persons scurrying to Marathon constituency with less than sincere objectives. Well Marathon, as your representative I am available to provide any necessary counsel."
Scores of attendees applauded Fitzgerald when he said that he did not come "to play politics".
"There is a time and a place for that. Now is not that time," he said.
The Black & Veatch report concluded that residents who live and work near the gas station were exposed to chemicals that could create health risks. Scores of people were then seen getting onto the buses parked in front of the church. On Sunday, the government expressed regret over the length of time it took to make the report public.
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