EPA takes action to protect Puerto Rico's shrinking wetlands

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken action against three entities in Puerto Rico that have illegally filled wetlands on the island to build houses, roads, condos and an industrial park.

Two developers and a mayor charged with illegally filling wetlands

New York, N.Y., Oct. 28, 2003 -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken action against three entities in Puerto Rico that have illegally filled wetlands on the island to build houses, roads, condos and an industrial park.

Two developers - Suchville Development, Inc. and Estancias de Monte Rio, S.E. - and Mayor Pablo Crespo Torres of Añasco have been charged with violating wetlands protections established under the federal Clean Water Act. EPA is seeking cash penalties totaling $192,500 for the violations, and has required the developers to make restitution for the ecological loss by creating new wetlands in Puerto Rico.

The cases were referred to EPA by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also enforces wetlands regulations. In all three cases, EPA believes the respondents knew their obligations under the law, and went ahead with illegal construction nonetheless.

"Development in Puerto Rico cannot proceed unchecked, because the price of lost wetlands is simply too high," said Jane M. Kenny, EPA Regional Administrator. "Every acre of wetlands lost means less space for the island's magnificent birds to congregate, for fish to spawn and for mammals to rear their young. It also reduces the benefits that wetlands provide by naturally removing chemical contaminants from the water supply. When wetlands are flagrantly destroyed, EPA and our federal partners will act. Violators may be surprised to discover how much more expensive it is to break the law than to follow it."

EPA is seeking $137,500 from Suchville Development and its president, Rudolph Jurgensen, for the most substantial violations of the three cases. In 1994, Suchville Development illegally eliminated 2.7 acres of freshwater marsh around the edge of a mangrove swamp in Brenas Ward of Vega Alta to build an exclusive beachfront condominium complex called "Lakeside Villas."

The freshwater marsh served as an important buffer from contaminants for the mangroves. Before filling a wetland, entities must first apply for a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. EPA discovered that the company originally intended to build the complex in Sabana Ward, south of PR-693 in Vega Alta, and had applied for a permit from the Army Corps to fill wetlands there.

After Suchville encountered difficulties gaining approval for the permit due to objections by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the company retracted its permit application.

Suchville then built Lakeside Villas at their current more remote location without seeking a federal permit to fill wetlands. EPA has issued an order against Rudolph Jurgensen to replace the loss to the environment by creating new wetlands at another location measuring at least twice the area of freshwater marsh lost. The agency estimates that this will cost Suchville approximately $860,000. If Suchville fails to comply with the order to replace at least 5.4 acres of wetlands, EPA could file suit in federal court.

Estancias de Monte Rio, S.E. is a developer that is constructing a large residential complex on a 20-acre property in the El Mojao sector of the Vegas Ward of Cayey. From June to August 2002, the company filled approximately 0.16 acres of stream and wetlands without a permit when it diverted 200 meters of the stream's flow into an adjacent man-made channel. The small stream emanates from nearby mountains, and is a tributary of the Guavate River.

The company and Oberto E. Marini Irizarry, a partner, have agreed to replace the wetlands loss more than ten-fold by building a cascade of small riffles and wetland pools in the newly-created channel, and most importantly, by acquiring vacant land at an adjacent dairy farm and creating approximately one and a half acres of marshland there. This additional work will cost the company more than $200,000. EPA is also seeking a cash penalty of $27,500.

The Mayor of Añasco has been found liable for repeated violations of federal wetlands protection laws that took place during the construction of a new Route 402/109 connector road and the Añasco Industrial Park in Las Marias Ward. In 1999, federal inspectors discovered that the municipality was filling wetlands at the project site in defiance of Army Corps of Engineers instructions to apply for the necessary permit in advance.

After the Corps issued a Cease and Desist order, EPA discovered that the municipality continued to fill wetlands on the property. In 2002, EPA required Añasco to remove the fill, which it did, and to pay a penalty of approximately $10,000. The municipality also agreed to purchase and preserve a valuable 41-acre tract of wetlands in Cienaga Pozo Hondo and to obtain the necessary permit to complete the construction work.

In 2003, EPA learned that the municipality re-started construction by diverting water channels at the site, again without applying for the permit. The Agency estimates that a one-half acre of wetlands was illegally harmed in this process, and is seeking a $27,500 penalty.

In addition to protecting water quality, wetlands provide storm protection, erosion control and food and habitat to numerous fish, birds and other wildlife. The loss or degradation of wetlands can lead to serious consequences, such as extinctions and the decline in productivity of coastal fisheries. Anyone planning construction activities in wetlands or streams must contact the Army Corps of Engineers well in advance to obtain a permit. For information about applying for wetlands permits, call (787) 729-6905 or (787) 729-6944, or go to www.usace.army.mil/inet/functions/cw/cecwo/reg/.

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