Public Health Minister María Luisa Avila signed an emergency decree Wednesday to free up funds to expedite the closure of Costa Rica’s largest and oldest landfill.
At a press conference at Casa Presidencial, Avila also encouraged an administrative judge who is considering the possibility of reopening the dump-turned-landfill to keep it closed.
It’s been nearly three weeks since the doors were officially closed at the Río Azul landfill, southeast of San José, upon orders from the Health Ministry, but it doesn’t appear the controversy surrounding the 34-year-old landfill’s closure, where eight different Central Valley municipalities dumped their trash, will be buried anytime soon.
While waste management firm Berthier EBI de Costa Rica cut the ribbon to inaugurate its new 27-hectare landfill in Aserrí, south of San José, which will receive trash from some Central Valley municipalities, a group of local residents blocked the entrance to the new landfill in protest Tuesday.
About five dozen angry Aserrí residents blocked the new landfill Tuesday morning to demand that EBI meet its promise to fix two bridges and nearly two kilometers of road it promised to repair with the opening of the landfill.
Desamparados police officer Pablo Bertozzi said the protests were peaceful and came to an end in the late morning once residents were able to establish a dialogue with EBI.
EBI spokesman Guillermo López said EBI plans to have the road repairs done in 15 business days, and that they are waiting on asphalt that was to be donated by the Aserrí Municipality as part of an agreement. He said despite the inauguration, the landfill
won’t actually take in trash for at least another three weeks. The first stage of the landfill’s opening will involve the opening of two hectares of the 27-hectare dump.
The Tico Times attempted to contact Mario Morales, the Aserrí Mayor who stepped down from his post this week while he is investigated for money he received from a former EBI executive (see sidebar), but didn’t receive a response by press time.
López said there are plans for the municipalities of Desamparados, Aserrí, Alajuelita and part of San José to send their trash to the new dump.
When the Río Azul landfill closed down July 31 under Health Ministry orders, the landfill administrator, the Federation of Municipalities of the East (FEDEMUR), said the closure would set off a Central Valley trash crisis as the eight municipalities that sent their trash to Río Azul scramble to find a place to send their trash. The Health Ministry said there would be no crisis (TT, Aug. 3).
Six of eight of the municipalities that had been depositing their trash in Río Azul have said they wouldn’t deliver their trash there again even if it reopened. The municipalities are now sending their trash to the La Carpio landfill, also managed by EBI, or other Central Valley landfills, according to Health Ministry trash adviser Edgar García.
“They don’t want to continue contributing to the problem that is Río Azul,” Avila said. She added that the ministry has provided all necessary documentation to administrative judge Grace Loaiza of theContentious Administrative Court
in San José to keep the dump closed.
Loaiza is considering an appeal that FEDEMUR filed against the state for having closed the dump, according to federation spokeswoman Lucrecia Zúñiga. FEDEMUR Director Alexis Cervantes has said that the dump could remain open for another three years (TT, Aug. 3).
The closure put an end to 15 years of legal squabbling over when and how the dump could be closed. Though FEDEMUR says there isn’t enough money to execute a proper closure and the dump could become a public health disaster if not dealt with properly, the Health Ministry, which ordered the dump’s closure, says FEDEMUR has had more than enough time to close the dump and that the dump has already become a health hazard for area residents (TT, Aug. 3).
Avila said that if the judge were to rule in favor of reopening the landfill, the Ministry wouldn’t allow it because the ministry owns the land.
Avila added that a team of five scientists from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) Center for Environmental Pollution Research will work full time conducting a diagnostic of the landfill to see what effects it could have on the health of the surrounding community.
“This a clear message to the community that we are following up and are not going to take any risks,” the minister said.
Once it opens, the new Aserrí landfill will have a capacity to take in 1,000 metric tons of trash a day, though López said it will begin by taking in 700 tons a day. Río Azul took in about 500 tons of trash a day.
In related news, the Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS) this week said it will give up to $160 a month in financial support to some 100 families of buzos, or trash pickers, whose informal recycling jobs came to an end with the July 31 closure of the Río Azul landfill.
The institute said in a statement that it has $46,000 to send to 101 families of former trash pickers and others over the next three months as the families seek out new job opportunities. IMAS is encouraging the families to develop small business plans.
Of the 101 families on the list, only 36 of them are registered with the institute and will begin to immediately receive the state’s financial support. IMAS is in the process of helping the rest apply to become eligible to receive the money in coming weeks.
“If the trash collectors want to increase their income, they should take the initiative and present a project to the institute to open their own business,” said IMAS president José Antonio Li Piñar in a statement.
He said IMAS has a program to offer monetary incentives to people trying to start up a small business, as well as low interest loans for micro-entrepreneurs.
For the 34 years that Río Azul was open, hundreds of people made a living off the waste that was dumped into the landfill. Trash pickers picked out recyclable materials and sold them to buyers, and also took out used clothes and leftover food to take home to their families (TT, July 20, 27, Aug. 10).
Trash Dealings Stink of Scandal
Trash management in Costa Rica not only reeks of rot, but in recent years, of corruption scandals at the municipal level. Three mayors in the past year have facedinvestigations for alleged financial irregularities involved in managing trash.
This week, Aserrí Mayor Mario Morales stepped down from his seat for six months while the Prosecutor’s Office investigates him for alleged corruption and making false statements under oath, according to Judicial Branch spokesman Federico Venegas.
The allegation involving private landfill manager Berthier EBI surfaced last year when the Comptroller General’s Office filed a complaint against Mayor Morales for having allegedly received an illegal loan from the company.
To begin construction on its planned new landfill in Aserrí – which was completed this week – EBI needed construction permits from the municipal government of which Morales was Mayor. On Monday, the Aserrí Municipal Council designated Vice-Mayor Albertina Monge as interim mayor.
The Comptroller’s office filed a complaint against the Aserrí Mayor related to a $45,000 loan he received from an EBI executive who has since resigned. Morales has told The Tico Times he received the loan from former EBI manager Juan Carlos Obando in 2005 to help him buy back his home after it had gone to auction because of Morales’ unpaid debt. EBI and Morales have said the loan was a personal loan, not from the company.
San José Mayor Johnny Araya is also being investigated for allegedly having received illegal payments from EBI. Araya, who has been Mayor for 14 years, is accused of accepting kickbacks in exchange for awarding EBI its multimillion-dollar contract to build and manage the controversial La Carpio landfill west of San José (TT, July 22, 2005). Araya has denied under oath having received any payments. A payment record that Araya says was fabricated shows him having received a check for $65,000.
In another trash-related scandal, Alex Contreras, former Mayor of central Pacific canton Aguirre, was recently banned from holding positions in which he would manage public funds after he allegedly illegally increased payments by more than double to a company that collects the canton’s trash.
The Comptroller General’s Office ban was increased from four to five years because he also allegedly transferred public land illegally to a private citizen.
Additionally, the Comptroller’s Office recommended the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) revoke his ability to run for mayor in the future.
The municipality started overpaying the Quepos Improvement Association for help on projects in the Quepos region in October 2005, according to a Comptroller’s report. In total, the municipality overpaid the Association by more than $95,000, which the Comptroller insists Contreras must now repay.