Residents of Paraíso, in the eastern province of Cartago, may have lost their Eden to something worse than sin: sewage.
For the past decade, neighbors of La Vicentina, a neighborhood of approximately 80 homes, have been sending sewage from their overflowing septic tanks into the street gutters and down into a lagoon behind the urbanization, according to La Vicentina residents.
The lagoon drains into a nameless stream some 500 meters south of La Vicentina, through a system of ditches that run through neighboring properties.
Three weeks ago, the Municipality of Paraíso began installing a concrete pipeline in the ditch to “resolve the problems of bad odors and visual contamination,” according to municipal engineering assistant Fabricio Guzmán.
However, Isaac García, whose adjacent finca was invaded by black waters in late December 2005, during the municipality’s first effort to drain the black-water lagoon, told The Tico Times the pipeline will only cover up a stinky problem, not fix it.
The pipeline, which stops right outside his property, pours contaminated waters into an existing ditch inside his finca.
Joanna Biolley, president of La Vicentina’s residents’ association, agrees their precarious sewage system is a threat to public health, and the problem should be resolved by the municipality, the Ministry of Public Health and the developer of the urbanization, Luis Morales, through construction of a sewage-treatment plant.
Who’s to Blame?
According to Biolley, who has resided at the lower-middle-class neighborhood since 1999, it is impossible to blame developer Morales alone for a complex sewage problem that involves many people.
Construction of La Vicentina started in 1996, as a joint project between Morales and developer partner Luis Rojas, who divided and sold the land by lots but did not construct all the houses on it.
In the report the developers submitted to the Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA) to obtain their environmental permit in May 1996, they stated that each La Vicentina homeowner would be in charge of building his or her own sewagetreatment system, and that this had been accomplished 100%, but the document did not specify what kind of systems were in place.
SETENA’s resolution, dated May 8, 1996, declares the Technical Secretariat completed studies of the grounds, showing the site harbored adequate conditions for individual treatment systems and that the project did not require an environmental-impact study.
After this date, no document exists showing that SETENA made any follow-up studies of the grounds.
According to Biolley, the developers divided the grounds into too many lots of less than 200 square meters each, not allowing sufficient space for large-enough septic tanks in each home.
That is why she and other La Vicentina residents were forced to add pipes to their tanks to empty the excess sewage onto the street gutters, she explained.
Carlos Blanco, another member of the residents’ association, agrees residents have no other option.
The Tico Times left several messages on La Vicentina developer Morales’ answering machine, but received no answer by press time.
Biolley said in the past several years she has contacted the ParaísoMunicipality and the local office of the Public Health Ministry approximately 16 times, informing them of the health and environmental threat in the community because of the untreated waters.
However, it was not until late 2005 that government authorities took action to resolve the problem.
The Public Health Ministry’s regional office in Paraíso started running tests to determine which homes are dumping the contents of their overflowing septic tanks into the street gutters, said Paraíso Health Ministry branch director Yolanda González.
Health Ministry employees, who have run seven tests so far since Nov. 4, 2005, and will continue with five to six per week this year until they cover all of La Vicentina, are pouring fluoresceine, a fluorescent green substance, into the toilets in each home, González said. If the substance seeps out onto the street gutters, homes that empty the contents of their septic tanks onto the street will be identified, and the Health Ministry will issue an official order for them to stop, she said, adding that so far all of the tests have yielded negative results.
Although residents and neighbors say it is obvious that the area is contaminated with sewage, the Paraíso health director said this testing method was chosen to be able to apply the appropriate legal mechanism on each individual homeowner.
Because the paperwork specifies that each home is responsible for its own sewage treatment system, the Public Health Ministry cannot order the ParaísoMunicipality or the developers to build a treatment system for the community, she said.
González explained the tests are run with each homeowner’s permission, which they have obtained so far. If a homeowner refuses to let them in, the Health Ministry would pair up with police to obtain a search warrant to enter the home, she said.
Asked what would happen if all the tests turned out negative, González replied that despite the bad odors that La Vicentina residents constantly complain about, the ministry would “establish that no black waters are being emptied (onto the gutters).”
In January, La Vicentina neighbor García denounced the ParaísoMunicipality before the Environment Tribunal, an administrative court under the Ministry of the Environment and Energy (MINAE), for sending contaminated water through his property.
He said municipal workers connected a ditch outside his property to one inside his finca that runs to the stream.
The tribunal sent inspectors to the area in January, but has not yet resolved the complaint.
The Tico Times asked Carlos Briceño, Environment Tribunal president, details about the case, but Briceño said the tribunal is not allowed to comment on unresolved cases.
García also blames La Vicentina residents for dumping their waste into the gutter. However, Biolley argued that this method is not uncommon in Paraíso and many other cantons around Costa Rica. The difference is, other cantons do not have open-air sewer systems, she said.
In the meantime, the municipality will continue building a 100-meter pipeline to drain the black-water lagoon.
“This was approved in the (neighborhood’s) construction plan. It is the only solution,”municipality engineering assistant Guzmán said, adding that the stream is public property.
Municipality legal advisor Aldo Mata said the municipality is currently studying whether the pond was formed because of low ground penetrability or as a result of the construction of La Vicentina.
Until the municipality is able to determine the origins of the pond, it will not take action to drain it again, because if it is the developer’s responsibility, it will be his duty, Mata said.