In a move that seems to many to be long overdue, the Environmental Tribunal, an administrative court under the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Technology (MINAET), froze work on a portion of the Caldera highway last week because of concerns over suspected environmental damage.
Although the project received all necessary environmental viability permits from the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA), project watchdogs have applauded the court’s decision.
“I think the Environmental Tribunal is acting correctly,” said Marvin Rojas, a legislator from the Citizen Action Party (PAC) who has followed the project closely. “If there are questions about the environmental management (of the project), like the disposal of materials, intervention is of the utmost importance.”
The project has racked up a long list of concerns since it began.
In May, Autopistas del Sol, the Spanish company building the road, punctured the Barva aquifer, which supplies more than 500,000 people in theCentral valley. Water poured out of the ground and into dirt construction ditches alongside the pavement (TT, June 5).
According to reports, blueprints indicate that the aquifer rises to within five meters of the surface of the ground in places between Ciudad Colón and Orotina. Nonetheless, the company sliced down to 15 to 20 meters in this zone.
Imnsa Ingenieros Consultores (IMNSA), the company contracted to oversee the project, has been the target of complaints all along for allegedly allowing the use of flawed material and poorly drawn plans. The company has been criticized by the Costa Rican government for alleged negligent supervision and has been fined by the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT).
The court’s Sept. 24 ruling claims that construction of the highway has affected the Barva aquifer, the Río Tárcoles and at least 20 streams and rivers between Orotina, a town just inland from the central Pacific coast and Ciudad Colón, a Central Valley town southwest of San José.
A lack of mitigation plans has allowed an excess of dirt to flow into the rivers, according to the court. The ruling says flow has led to concerns that over-sedimentation of the waterways could harm the mangrove forests at the mouth of the Río Tárcoles, which serve as a protective habitat for various species of marine life.
The court ordered “detailed studies” from MINAET’s water department and the National Groundwater, Irrigation and Drainage Service (SENARA), as well as input from other conservation agencies.
The outcome of the studies will determine the amount of potential fines for environmental damage. Contractors would have to pay the fines and implement mitigation plans in order to continue building.
Jose Luis Vargas, a judge with the Environmental Tribunal, visited the area on Tuesday and said that Autopistas del Sol has acted quickly in beginning the evaluation process. Researchers from the court, SENARA and SETENA joined officials from Autopistas del Sol to determine what mitigation plans the company must implement.
The court has demanded that Autopistas del Sol execute better clean-up strategies after excavation, collect construction debris, build structures that prevent dirt from entering rivers and repair some of the stream sources damaged.
Since the highway is a public works project undertaken by a private company through a concession, the money for these plans and repairs will come from an “environmental guarantee” that the company was obligated to deposit with SETENA.
The deposit is an additional payment that should be equal to 1 percent of the total cost of the project. Originally, the cost of the project was estimated to be $100 million.
However, after construction began the price-tag rose to more than $229 million.
Despite the cost increase, SETENA has only received a deposit of $1 million from Autopistas del Sol.
Sonia Espinosa, general secretary for SETENA, said that the institute has requested the additional money and is “expecting it at any moment.”
Requests by The Tico Times for information from Autopistas del Sol about the deposit did not yield results by press time, but lawmaker Rojas said that if the government is serious about the environmental safety of the project, SETENA and the courts must take a more aggressive role in securing the remainder of the deposit.
“The cost of the project has grown, but the environmental guarantee hasn’t, and that’s why we are worried,” Rojas said. “The court was right in attacking the construction angle, but that’s just one side. Now they need to go after the fiscal side. MINAET must demand the full amount of the deposit.”
On Tuesday, the court lifted the precautionary measure that suspended construction for certain areas of the highway, including the portion around the Barva aquifer.
However, it kept the freeze on construction at 22 points along the road where river sedimentation remains a concern. Vargas said that leaving dirt exposed to rainfall in some areas would be more dangerous than allowing the company to continue.
So far, no dangerous materials have entered the Barva aquifer, and Vargas said that drinking water is not in jeopardy. So far, Autopistas del Sol has not indicated that it will not accept the projected fines and costs of damages, and the company has not announced plans to file an appeal.