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Belize: PUC vs. Consolidated case back in court: PUC’s appeal heard

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3 weeks ago, we told you how Belize Water Services Limited was making multi-million dollar investments to provide residents of San Pedro Town with a more reliable access to water.

Before this plan was put into motion, the island was supplied for years by the company, Consolidated Water Belize Limited. They generated clean, potable water by collecting sea water, and then processing it through their sophisticated reverse osmosis filtration system, which purified it. They then sold that water to BWS, which then distributed it all households and business places on the island. 

The problem was that Consolidated could not keep up with the needs and the demand of the island, which has grown exponentially in the last decades. That led to shortages, where customers had to suffer through water interruptions and water rationing, which became more severe during the tourism high season, and the Easter Holidays when San Pedro received an increase in visitors. 

With the help of the Government and the Caribbean Development Bank, BWS has acquired Consolidated, and they’re directly taking over production and distribution to customers on the island. 

BWS’ ambitious project should end all of San Pedro’s water worries, but that same shortage landed the former company, Consolidated, into trouble with the Public Utilities Commission back in 2010. 

That’s when The San Pedro Business Association filed a formal complaint to the utilities regulator against Consolidated. The PUC acted on it, and when they were about to take action against Consolidated, the water company filed a lawsuit against them in the Supreme Court.

It’s one of those cases that sat for years on the desk of the Chief Justice, who eventually rendered a decision in the favor of Consolidated. Reliable sources tell us that the judge ruled that the PUC had violated Consolidated right to natural justice, to properly make a defense against the complaint. 

The PUC disagreed with the ruling, and they filed an appeal in the Court of Appeal, which was heard today. After just under 4 hours of arguments before the panel of judges, their attorney, Fred Lumor granted us an interview, in which he explained the points he made to show the judges that the Supreme Court ruling was wrong. Here’s how he explained it to us this evening:

Fred Lumor, SC – Attorney for PUC
“This matter started way back. It’s one of the matters which were outstanding before the Chief Justice for about 6 years. It deals with the water situation problem in San Pedro. Sometime in 2010, the San Pedro Business Association made a complaint to Public Utilities Commission that the quality of water, and the quantity of water being supplied in San Pedro was in adequate. At the time, Consolidated Water Company was doing reverse osmosis with sea water, and then they sell to Belize Water Service Limited, and they distribute to the public in San Pedro. The PUC investigated the matter. Consolidated decided not to cooperate the PUC, and the made findings against them. They took the matter to the Supreme Court, where an injunction was granted against the PUC from proceeding, or enforcing the orders they made against Consolidated.

“Belize Water Services Limited has since acquired Consolidated, but the problem is the regulator jurisdiction of the Public Utilities Commission, which is in issue here. The issue that we’ve been arguing before the Court today is whether the procedure the PUC adopted in hearing the complaint of the San Pedro Business Association is consistent with the provisions of the PUC Act, and the Water Industry Act. The Procedure that Consolidated is advocating will look what we call adversarial proceedings, like the police arresting you, they appear in court and prosecute you, calling evidence and all that. But, the procedure that we’re urging the court to consider is that it is fact finding or investigative. So, it should not be looked at as if San Pedro Business Association should appear in court to prosecute the complaint they had filed with the PUC. That is not the procedure advocated in the law.”

We also got a chance to speak with Consolidated’s attorney, Rodwell Williams, and from his perspective, the Supreme Court ruling was appropriate. He told us that the PUC, and the San Pedro Business Association which complained to them, failed to show specifics of how Consolidated had failed in their responsibilities to supply the island with water. Here’s how he explained why:

Rodwell Williams, SC – Attorney for Consolidated Water Belize
“It’s very simple and straightforward. Below in the Supreme Court, and here in the Court of Appeal, the simple and determinative issue in this appeal has to do with the fact that when you make a complaint against service provider, in the utility industry, the law, and in this particular case, mandates that you have some specificity or particulars. You can’t make a complaint at large, I don’t like your water. The law has to say what duty, and law requires it, and the complainant, or the PUC, must indicate what is the specifics of the failure in duty by the service provider. What is the omission? What is the commission? What is the act not done or omitted to do, and when. And in the absence of that – because Section 24 of the Public Utilities Act requires it – then you ought not proceed to hear and dispose of that investigation or that complaint. Because the complaint is not properly constituted so as to invoke the jurisdiction of the PUC. So, unless complaint comes within the 4 corners of the law, then you have not trigger, and the PUC has no jurisdiction, then, to enter upon an investigation, a hearing, and so and so forth. And to booth, in this particular claim, they were asked for the specifics and particulars, and they simple ignored every request, and went ahead and conducted their investigation, their hearing and so on, and after the fact, sought to invite Consolidated, the respondent to give any comment. Consolidated never commented because you don’t want to wave your rights. I have already filed suit that you have no jurisdiction to enter upon this inquiry because there is a legal deficiency.”

The Court of Appeal has reserved judgement in this case to a date to be announced.

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