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Acting EPA regional administrator visits site of Clean Water Act

Meets with community activist; commits to protecting wetlands in the area


May 13, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Regional Administrator Kathleen Callahan saw for herself the affects of development on communities in Las Cucharrillas wetland area of Cataño during a recent tour of the area with community activist Rosa Hilda Ramos.

Callahan committed herself to continuing the EPA’s efforts to protect the wetlands and monitor construction projects in the area for full compliance with permits. In the settlement of a lawsuit filed by the EPA, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority agreed to contribute $3.4 million to acquire privately held land in wetlands areas.

The EPA administrator praised Ramos, who heads Community United Against Contamination (Cucco by its Spanish acronym), for her efforts to protect the wetlands, an important bird sanctuary. "I think she has some very creative ideas on how to protect the wetlands in a way that pays attention to the needs of the community," Callahan said.

Ramos said Cucco is working on building a visitors’ center in the environs of the wetlands as a tourist attraction. Cruise ship patrons usually don’t have the time to explore the island’s natural attractions and could find a nearby area to explore in Las Cucharrillas, said Ramos. "We don’t want to have sacred land. We want people to visit so the community can have an economic benefit."

"[Tourists] could take the ferry from San Juan across the bay," said Ramos. Local artisans could sell their wares at the visitors’ center, providing a source of income for the community, she said. Ramos disclosed that Cucco is evaluating sites for the visitors’ center and the community would look for funding from both public and private sources.

Las Cucharrillas wetlands includes about 1,000 acres, close to half of which are in private hands. The community is negotiating with various landowners to obtain other portions of the land. In November 2004, Bacardi Corp. donated 10 acres of wetlands as part of a settlement with the EPA to be Clean Water Act-compliant.

Residents filed an injunction April 20 to halt the department-store chain Me Salvé warehouse construction in Las Cucharillas. In the injunction, they state Me Salvé filled a 2,600-square-meter area of wetland, resulting in the accumulation of water on adjacent property containing a WIPR radio antenna. Water displaced by the fill is also filtering beneath the homes of 28 families in Las Vegas neighborhood in Cataño, causing structural damage to the houses.

The Regulations & Permits Administration (ARPE by its Spanish acronym) accepted jurisdiction the same day and is scheduled to rule on the case May 18, Ramos said. In 2004, ARPE issued Me Salvé a permit without requiring the company to present an environmental impact statement because the construction was deemed a small project that didn’t require a statement.

Ramos said Cucco is satisfied with ARPE’s decision to assume jurisdiction in the case. "If they give [Me Salvé] permission or not, at least it will be done within the law," she said. "If the process is an honest one, [ARPE] will revoke the permit, require an environmental impact statement, and open the process to public hearings, like [the agency] should have in the beginning."

Earlier this year, an EPA inspector found Me Salvé had violated regulations protecting against storm-water runoff during construction and filling of wetlands, both violations of the Clean Water Act (CB March 31). The Army Corps of Engineers in March determined the company had a permit issued by ARPE in 1990 to fill part of the wetland, but had no permit for an adjacent area it also filled. The Corps of Engineers issued a cease-and-desist order to stop the department-store chain from filling the area for which it has no permit, said Corps of Engineer spokeswoman Elsa Jiménez. Besides issuing a fine, the Corps of Engineers also could require Me Salvé to restore the filled wetland.

Community representatives last week were to request the Corps of Engineers revoke the permit Me Salvé was issued, Ramos added. By press time, Me Salvé management hadn’t responded to calls by CARIBBEAN BUSINESS for comment.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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