Crucial Lethem road repairs expected to finish this week

-quality of road works in region questioned

By Carl Parker
in Lethem

A mile-long section of roadway remains to be fixed along the Hunt Oil stretch of the Linden/Lethem trail with traffic expected to resume this week after major flood-fuelled disruptions.

Minister of Transport and Hydraulics, Robeson Benn said that within the one mile is a stretch of 300 feet which is “critical” and the Ministry is hoping to complete repairs within three days provided the weather is conducive, the Government Information Agency (GINA) reported yesterday. GINA said that 5.5 miles of the 6.5-mile Hunt Oil stretch has been successfully restored. It reported Benn as saying that currently, pick-ups are traversing the area transporting passengers and essential cargo.

Sitting from left are Regional Chairman Clarindo Lucas and Ministers Robeson Benn and Pauline Sukhai

Benn and Minister of Amerindian Affairs, Pauline Sukhai on Saturday met with stakeholders in Lethem to brief them on recent developments as it relates to the damaged roadway at Hunt Oil and Corkwood. Members of the Rupununi Chamber of Com-merce and Industry (RCCI), minibus operators, the army, police and other interest groups were present. Also present were the Region Nine Chairman, Clarindo Lucas, the Regional Executive Officer, Donald Ramsaywak, and the Regional Health Officer, Dr. Tracey Bovell.

Lucas said that the rains have impacted the region in several ways. He denied that there was a fuel shortage at the Lethem Power House saying that “technical difficulties” caused the prolonged power outages experienced over the past few days. Lucas said that the problem has now been fixed. Later, he also denied that there was a food shortage saying his house was well-stocked.

Unexpected heavy rainfall
Addressing the gathering, at which Stabroek News was present, Benn pointed out that first it was the Linden/ Mabura stretch that had experienced problems and now it was the Kurupukari/Lethem section. He said that the situation was due to unexpected heavy rainfall due to a weather pattern which saw rains moving to hinterland areas instead of the coastal areas.

The Minister said that even though the road was raised an additional three feet, the water simply overwhelmed it, causing difficulties. He said that his Ministry tried to save the road by building dykes to empolder the road and to increase the culvert capacity. But, he said, some drivers used the culverts to winch their vehicles through the critical sections thus creating additional problems. He said that this resulted in the redeployment of a piece of machinery from Karasabai, in the South Pakaraimas to the affected area.

Benn admitted that a mistake was made in placing the culverts too high, which resulted in even more difficulties on the road. In addition to this, the location of the material needed to effect repairs is too far away. He said that trucks have to reverse for at least three miles to dump their load. He informed the meeting that 10 days ago, the affected section was approximately 6.5 miles but now it is about 1.5 miles of roadway to be fixed. The Minister said that the affected section is retaining water whenever it rains and that it is proving to be problematic, in that the laterite is thin at this point and vehicles might break through the surface. He added that the road needed to be raised another two feet. He reported that light vehicles were allowed to traverse the road on Friday. However, two drivers who spoke with this newspaper were skeptical and one said that there are five more culverts to be fixed.

Benn informed the gathering that a decision was made to allow the smaller vehicles to pass to get essential supplies and service personnel through. He said this will continue while work is still being done on the road. According to him, the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) has been instructed to fly in geogrids and light culverts for the damaged road. They were also expected to start shuttling fuel for the Lethem Power House, from Annai, yesterday to ensure an adequate supply of electricity for the next six days. He said that should the situation get any worse, then the option of shuttling fuel along the road in boats will have to be considered. He urged residents not to panic as plans are there to ensure adequate supplies of essential items.

Oil well

An oil well is expected to be drilled in the North Rupununi soon by Groundstar and Benn said that all efforts have been made to get the equipment, which amounted to between 70 to 90 truck loads, from Boa Vista, Brazil. He said another 30 truck loads were expected to travel through the road from Linden, but because of the difficulties on the road the movement has been delayed.

A section of the gathering at the meeting with the ministers

Meantime, Sukhai said that she had spoken to many residents and the feeling she got was that there were no shortages as was reported in the press. She said that she was told that there are adequate food supplies in the region, especially in the South Rupununi. The Minister however, warned that if the situation persists then the assistance of the Private Sector will have to be solicited, “but as of now, there are no shortages and the power situation was due to technical difficulties and not a shortage of fuel.“ She said that she hoped to visit communities in the North Rupununi to get a feel of how things are in those communities.

During the interactive segment of the meeting, a number of issues pertaining to the road were raised. Benn in response to a question as to how soon trucks will be allowed on the road said that based on the experience with the trucks, they will not be allowed on the road under any circumstances. He reiterated that the trucks travelled on the road even when they were advised not to. This, he said, will not happen again. The Minister reiterated that the road has to be raised and widened and that the culvert capacity has to be increased and a few bridges may have to be built. He called on the Private Sector to co-operate in this regard. The Minister said he witnessed a vehicle that got stuck and in an effort to extricate itself, mud was being churned up, thus making the situation worse.

Jackie D’Aguiar, a businesswoman asked about the possibility of allowing fuel for local consumption to pass through but Benn said there was nothing he could do at the moment. He, however, suggested that the smaller vehicles go to Annai, where the fuel trucks are, and shuttle fuel in drums to Lethem. The Minister said that if the situation gets worse then the possibility of airlifting fuel to Lethem will have to be explored.

John Macedo, a gas station owner, questioned if shuttling was practical. He explained that in the first place the trucks are not allowed to cross at Kurupukari, and those that crossed before the trucks were banned from traversing the road, cannot venture out of Annai. Macedo said that for the shuttling to be practical, the trucks at Annai will have to get as close as possible to the damaged road in order to lessen the shuttling distance. Benn promised to clarify the situation so that all concerned will be aware of decisions taken.

Businessman Roger King explained that over the years the road had been graded and when repairs had been done, no compacting followed. He said that this has resulted in the weakening of the road to the extent that it eventually collapsed. He said that culverts are not the answer, but bridges should be built at the critical areas. Benn in response said that a pre-feasibility is being done and the findings will be included in the feasibility when that is done.

He further said that repairs to the road have to be done in relation to monies available for that purpose. The present situation has nothing to do with whether or not the road was compacted, Benn added. “The water simply overwhelmed the road”.
A minbus operator asked when the buses will be allowed on the road, to which the Minister responded that the road at Corkwood is still slippery and he cannot be certain if the vehicles will be able to navigate that section of roadway.

Daniel Gajie, past President of RCCI recalled that issues pertaining to the road were raised many times in the past.  He said that since 2005, an oversight committee for the road was raised and the proposal was for the Regional Democratic Councils, and the Chambers of Commerce of Regions Nine and Ten to play an integral part on that committee. Gajie said he is unaware of the status of the proposal, but that he has observed over the years, engineers from Georgetown making regular visits to the road. He argued that such a committee should be formed quickly in order to ensure that Government gets value for money. He said that he is not convinced that works carried out on the road are of a high quality. He said that it was observed one time, for which documentation is available, that at one section of the road, mud was being used to build the road. He questioned whether the road has been raised at all.

According to Gajie, the private sector has been pushing development in Lethem for the past three years. He said $500M was spent in the recently commissioned Commercial Zone and argued that with this sort of development, there will be increased traffic both in terms of frequency and volume. He pointed out that this will put a strain on the already weakened road adding that the increase in traffic has not been met with an increase in the capacity of the road.

At this juncture, Benn said that maybe the government should not have spent the millions on the road, but rather, they should have stopped the heavy trucks from traversing it. Continuing, Gajie pointed out that monies have been spent on the same section of road every year and still there have not been major improvements. Responding, Benn said that he was not aware of any deficiencies on the part of the contractor. He said what he was aware of was that government has spent millions of dollars to strengthen the bridges to the extent where they can now accommodate 30 ton vehicles up from 15 tons 10 years ago.

RCCI Vice-President, Kenrick Nickram asked when permanent roads will be constructed in Lethem. He said there are two sections that are done every year and the result has always been the same. He alluded to the road leading to the airstrip and the one leading to the Tabatinga Bridge. In response the Minister suggested that maybe the roads should have been left with the laterite surface, but a decision was made to cap the road with monies that were available for that purpose.

When this newspaper asked what plans the Ministry has to seal the breach in the road permanently, an upset Benn responded that there was no “breach” in the road. He accused this newspaper of printing “stupidness”.  Benn said that he would be “very angry” if anyone said that there was a breach in the road. He said that what was happening was normal for the type of road, and hoped that the worse has passed.
This newspaper has seen camera footage taken along the road where vehicles were being pulled through craters with slush up to the wind screen.

The Hunt Oil Stretch of road was built in 1987 as a temporary access road to enable a Brazilian Road Construction Company, Paranapanema, to get its equipment across the huge swamp at Mereitezero. The road was to be upgraded to a permanent road as part of a 3 phase contract to build a fair-weather road from Lethem to Kurupukari. The Annai to Kurupukari phase was completed. The other two phases – Kurupukari to Annai and Annai to Lethem were shelved in 1992 when the government changed. Since then the now beleagured road has been scraped and graded after every rainy season.