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 1,200-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 Walmart 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.