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.
In the 1990s, Cataño, a community of 35,000 within greater San Juan and adjacent to Las Cucharillas Marsh, was found to have the highest rate of respiratory diseases and cancer incidence in Puerto Rico. Air pollution from nearby oil-powered electric power plants, run by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), was primarily responsible. The EPA knew about the high levels of pollution in the Cataño area and had notified the Puerto Rican government that it was unsafe for residents; however, as of 1991, neither entity had taken action to address the problem.
When Ramos’s mother died of cancer 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 EPA that it use the multi-million dollar fine to purchase Las Cucharillas marshland from the collection of private entities that owned the land in order to permanently protect it.
The 1200-acre Las Cucharillas Marsh bordering Cataño is part of Puerto Rico’s San Juan Bay Estuary, the only tropical estuary in the US National Estuary Program, and provides habitat for the largest diversity of aquatic birds in the region. The marsh also serves as a respite from the surrounding complex of warehouses, highways, electrical plants and multiple manufacturing facilities. Its mangroves and wetlands are an important buffer zone protecting Cataño communities from frequent threats of flooding, which have increased with the intensity of tropical storms in recent years. Despite its long-term ecological and community significance, the marsh was not officially deemed a protected area.
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 then-Governor of Puerto Rico issued an executive order to designate Las Cucharillas Marsh a protected area.
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