CORRECTED-Barbudans sue to block airport as they seek to rebuild after hurricane

(Correcting to remove reference to island lacking a functioning school in par 15)

SEATTLE, July 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A group of Barbudans has filed a legal claim against their government to halt construction of an international airport, saying the money should instead be used to restore basic services after Hurricane Irma devastated the island.

The claimants argue there should be a judicial review of the decision to give the green light to the airport, which they say violates the planning act and was not subject to a proper environmental impact review. The government rejects that charge.

They also say the spending cannot be justified when the island does not have a fully functioning hospital, only about a third of residents have reliable electricity, and many still rely on handouts for drinking water.

“How can you justify putting resources into an international airport when the basic services that are required by a community are still not in place?” one of the complainants John Mussington told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Barbuda.

Construction work began in September and the total cost will be nearly 16 million dollars according to the website of the local Observer newspaper. It said the government was putting up 4 million dollars with the rest coming from private investors.

The island is part of Antigua and Barbuda, a twin-island nation in the Caribbean, but has traditionally governed its own land. It is the smaller of the two islands, with just 1,600 inhabitants.

The group behind the lawsuit says the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the airport was inadequate and the government did not follow requirements under its own planning law.

“What was done cannot be considered to be an EIA,” said Mussington, a biologist and principal of Barbuda’s secondary school.

Antigua and Barbuda’s Chief Environmental Officer Diann Black-Layne denied the charge.

“As far as I am aware they met most of the environmental requirements for which they applied,” she said via WhatsApp. “I am not aware of the gaps at this time.”

So far a 7,100-foot (2,150-metre) stretch of land has been bulldozed for the new airport.

The complainants say the land is traditionally used for grazing, farming and hunting and provides habitat for rare plant species such as the white sap tree as well as the red-footed tortoise and Barbudan fallow deer.

Barbuda currently has only a landing strip used for small propeller planes, and that was damaged in the hurricane.

The island is still struggling to recover from Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm that struck last September and severely damaged or destroyed nearly half its buildings.

As the Caribbean enters this year’s hurricane season, Barbuda still lacks a police station, Mussington said.

The lawsuit was filed on Monday at the Antigua and Barbuda High Court of Justice by the London-based barrister Leslie Thomas.