In the shadow of polluting factories surrounding San Juan’s low income community of Cataño, the wetlands and mangroves of Las Cucharillas Marsh provide important habitats for aquatic and migratory birds as well as flood protection and much needed open space for nearby residents. After leading a movement to hold nearby polluting industry accountable for Cataño’s high incidence of respiratory disease, Rosa Hilda Ramos successfully convinced the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to direct millions of dollars in pollution fines to establish long term protection of the Las Cucharillas Marsh.
Environmental Justice Leads to Conservation
When Ramos’s mother died of cancer causes in 1990, Ramos decided to donate the medical equipment used by her mother to people in need , after learning that in some of the less privileged communities of the town some people had to share respiratory machines. Realizing that many neighbors were suffering from the same respiratory and cancer problems, Ramos and other community leaders founded Communities United Against Contamination (CUCCo) in 1991 to seek justice. That year, Ramos and CUCCo brought their complaints directly to the Puerto Rican Department of Health and the State environmental Quality Board, demanding action from the EPA. In response to Ramos and CUCCo’s persistence, the EPA held a public hearing to address the matter. As a result, PREPA was found in violation of the federal Clean Air and Clean Water acts by the EPA, and was also fined US$10,000 by the Puerto Rican Environmental Quality Board.
While the decision was an initial victory for CUCCo and the Cataño community, by 1993, the plants had failed to reduce their toxic emissions. Ramos and CUCCo sued PREPA pro se in federal court. Ultimately PREPA was found responsible for the respiratory and related health ailments of Cataño’s residents, and was fined US$7 million. The case represented the first time that citizens in Puerto Rico sat down to negotiate directly with the EPA and regulators, a landmark environmental justice success for the island.
The court ordered PREPA to pay the US$7 million directly to the federal government. Ramos and CUCCo had a different idea about where the funds should go. They recommended to the
Community Victory for Conservation
Cataño rallied behind Ramos’ proposal to direct the fines to protect Las Cucharillas. In 1999, Ramos and CUCCo succeeded in convincing the EPA to redirect US$3.4 million of the original $7 million PREPA fine toward the purchase and protection of Las Cucharillas Marsh. The funds were not sufficient to purchase Las Cucharillas’s entire 1,200 acres of marshland, so in 2001, Ramos and CUCCo brought together a diverse constituency to develop strategies for additional land acquisition and conservation. The coalition worked against the clock to prevent warehouse construction within large sections of privately-owned Las Cucharillas marshland.
In late 2004, the Bacardi Corporation, which operates a factory in Cataño, transferred 10 acres of land worth approximately US$1 million to the Las Cucharillas Marsh reserve. Encouraged by Ramos’s talks with the company, the transfer was part of a settlement reached by Bacardi and the EPA over the company’s Clean Water Act violations at its factory. In April 2007, with a similar agreement, the EPA announced that Wal-Mart would provide nearly US$100,000 for the preservation of land in the Las Cucharillas Marsh watershed. By 2007, Ramos and CUCCo’s efforts had resulted in the acquisition and permanent protection of 300 acres of Las Cucharillas marshland.
As a result of Ramos’s sustained advocacy, in August 2004, the Governor of Puerto Rico issued an executive order to designate Las Cucharillas Marsh a protected area. Governor Calderón then sent the process to the Puerto Rico Planning Board, where it went through various stages of review. The board has scheduled public hearings on the issue, which will mark the final step in the process to establish Las Cucharillas Nature Reserve.
“Wetlands are mysteriously designed to embrace our rivers’ raging waters before they flow into the sea, filtering them and making their path more calm and safe for humans and animals. Wetlands are one of the finest examples of God’s creation; a gift to us for a rich and safe life. No human design can substitute the pacifying effect wetlands have over a flooding river. We are blessed to have Cienaga Cucharillas wetlands. It is a blessing we are not willing to lose.”
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