EPA to Protect Puerto Rico's Shrinking Wetlands

Oct. 28, 2004

Continuing its work to protect critical wetlands in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has taken action against seven entities in Puerto Rico that have illegally filled wetlands to build houses, a warehouse for a hardware business and an industrial park. The actions involve violations of wetlands protection laws established under the federal Clean Water Act. EPA has fined several developers a total of $150,000, and is seeking an additional $330,000 in penalties from other developers for the violations. In addition, EPA has required the developers to make restitution for the ecological loss by creating new wetlands in Puerto Rico. The cases were referred to EPA by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also enforces wetlands regulations. In all of the cases, EPA believes the respondents knew their obligations under the law, and went ahead with illegal construction nonetheless.

"Building on wetlands poses serious threats to the welfare of local residents and wildlife in Puerto Rico, and it cannot proceed unchecked," said Jane M. Kenny, EPA Regional Administrator. "Filling wetlands causes flooding and means less space for the island's magnificent birds to congregate, for fish to spawn and for mammals to rear their young. It also reduces the benefits that wetlands provide by naturally removing chemical contaminants from the water supply. It's important for developers to know that they are required to get a proper permit before developing a wetland. If they do not, EPA and our federal partners will act and violators will be fined for breaking the law."

EPA is seeking $137,500 from Hector M. Torres Zayas of Ciudad Centro, Inc. and Pablo H. Padre of the Economic Construction Corporation for filling in 2.9 acres of wetlands to build a portion of a housing development called Villas de Sotomayor, in Aguada, Puerto Rico. EPA ordered them to remove the fill and replant aquatic vegetation. Dennis Bechara, Esq., the president of Western Shopping Center, Norte, Inc. and Hector del Rio- Torres, the president of Tamrio, Inc. are also being fined $137,500 for building without a permit. Before filling a wetland, entities must first apply for a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. After having difficulties obtaining a permit from the Corps, they constructed Western Industrial Park in Mayaguez and impacted 1.9 acres of wetlands. EPA ordered these companies to restore the wetlands and estimates that the combined cost for both construction projects mentioned will be over $400,000.

Three entities are being fined $27,500 for violating the Clean Water Act. Carlos Cuebas, the president of a small chain of home improvement stores called Ferreteria Maderas 3-C, Inc., expanded his business in San Juan by filling 0.76 acres of mangrove wetlands. Mr. Cuebas did this without a permit, while already having one violation for previously conducting illegal activity at the same site.

Miguel Vidal Quidgley, the president of the housing development company Las Picas Development Corporation and Armando Travieso, the president of the Atlantic Construction Company, were also ordered by EPA to restore filled streams and pay penalties of $25,700. The companies filled in 700 linear feet of small mountain streams to construct a portion of the Las Campicas housing development. These streams provide habitat for the endangered Puerto Rico plain pigeon and the estimated cost of replacing the streams will cost over $50,000.

In addition to protecting water quality, wetlands provide storm protection, erosion control and food and habitat to numerous fish, birds and other wildlife. The loss or degradation of wetlands can lead to serious consequences, such as extinctions and the decline in productivity of coastal fisheries. Anyone planning construction activities in wetlands or streams must contact the Army Corps of Engineers well in advance to obtain a permit. For information about applying for wetlands permits, call (787) 729-6905 or (787) 729-

6944, or go to www.usace.army.mil/inet/functions/cw/cecwo/reg/.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency