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Polluting industries in Cataño and Conservation of Las Cucharillas Marsh, Puerto Rico

The highest rate of respiratory diseases and cancer incidence in Puerto Rico due to air pollution from nearby oil-powered electric power and polluting industries. Now the area is under a conservation program


Rosa Hilda Ramos and the Communities United Against Contamination (CUCCo) have been working hard since 1991 on the conservation and preservation of the Las Cucharillas Marsh. This marsh is located in the San Juan Bay Estuary and it’s the only tropical estuary under the United States National Estuary Program and holds one of the largest wetlands ecosystem in the region. Though it is one of the last open spaces in the area, industrial work had been contaminating the air and water ever since the beginning of productivity. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gathered some results of an investigation made by themselves which showed that industries in Cataño, near the Las Cucharillas Marsh, were responsible of the air pollution that had been affecting local neighbors. Because of this, the town was suffering from the highest rate of cancer incidence and respiratory diseases in Puerto Rico. EPA shared their results with the Government of Puerto Rico but no entity had taken actions to address the problem. In 1991 Rosa Hilda Ramos, the CUCCo, and other community leaders brought their complaints to the Department of Health of Puerto Rico and the State Environmental Quality Board demanding action of the EPA. As a result, the EPA held a public hearing to inform their results and address the matter. It was clear for the investigators that the one responsible for the majority of the incidents was the Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority (PREPA). PREPA was found in violation of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts by the EPA, so it was fined US$10,000 by the Puerto Rican Environmental Quality Board. Court decision was a victory for the community but by 1993 the industries around the area had failed to reduce their toxic emissions. Ramos and the CUCCo were not satisfied with the addressing of the problem so far so they sued PREPA in federal court because of their negligence. PREPA was found responsible of the respiratory and health incidents in Cataño. The fine was for US$7 million to pay to the federal government. Ramos and the CUCCo proposed the idea to take part of the $7 million fine to buy the almost 500ha that forms the marsh. In 1999, they convinced the EPA to redirect US$3.4 million, of the US$7 million fine, to purchase the 1,200 acres of marshland to ensure its protection. The money wasn’t enough to purchase the entire marsh so since 2001 Ramos and the CUCCo have been working on solutions to buy the rest of the lands for its protection and conservation. In the late 2004, Las Cucharillas Marsh was declared a protected area. Later that year, the Bacardi Corporation, which has the largest distillery in the world with operation base in Cataño, transferred 10 acres of land (worth $1 million) to this reserve. The transfer was part of the settlement between Bacardi Corporation and the EPA over the company’s violations to the Clean Water Act. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., provided US$100,000 for the preservation of Las Cucharillas due to an agreement with the EPA. Thanks to this actions, by the end of 2007, the CUCCo and Ramos had acquired and ensured 300 acres of these wetlands for its permanent protection. Ever since, the CUCCo and Ramos had gained many followers and supporters and had joined forces with the Corredor Del Yagüazo, Inc. to expand their knowledge and give a better protection of the ecosystems. The project is still on-going since Ramos and the CUCCo won’t stop until the 1200 acres of land had been purchased and its protection and conservation is ensured.

Basic Data
Name of conflict:Polluting industries in Cataño and Conservation of Las Cucharillas Marsh, Puerto Rico
Country:Puerto Rico
State or province:Cataño, Guaynabo, Toa Baja, Bayamón
Location of conflict:Cataño
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict: 1st level:Biodiversity conservation conflicts
Type of conflict: 2nd level :Land acquisition conflicts
Aquaculture and fisheries
Thermal power plants
Wetlands and coastal zone management
Oil and gas refining
Specific commodities:Crude oil
Chemical products
Live Animals
Biological resources
Ecosystem Services
Project Details and Actors
Project details:

1,200 acres of wetlands.

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Project area:499.90
Level of Investment:7,010,000
Type of populationUrban
Affected Population:35,000 habitants
Start of the conflict:01/01/1991
Company names or state enterprises:Bacardi Corporation from Bermuda - Polluter and violator of Clean Water Act
Walmart from United States of America
Puerto Rico Electrical Power Authority (PREPA) from Puerto Rico
Relevant government actors:Puerto Rican Department of Health
State Environmental Quality Board
United States Environmental Protection Agency
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Comunidades Unidas Contra la Contaminación
US Environmental Protection Agency
Conflict and Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Local government/political parties
Social movements
Trade unions
Recreational users
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Public campaigns
Arguments for the rights of mother nature
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Impacts of the project
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity)
Potential: Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Global warming, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Oil spills, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsVisible: Accidents, Deaths
Potential: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Other environmental related diseases
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
New legislation
Strengthening of participation
Application of existing regulations
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:Court's decision and CUCCo have helped on the preservation of this marsh that holds the habitat of an extensive variety of flora and fauna. Now people in Cataño have a cleaner air.
Sources and Materials
Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Federal Clean Air Act of the US EPA

Federal Clean Water Act of the US EPA

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Puerto Rico Encyclopedia: Rosa Hilda Ramos
[click to view]

Rosa Hilda Ramos: 2008 Goldman Prize Recipient Islands and Island Nations

"In the shadow of polluting factories in Cataño, Rosa Hilda Ramos led the movement to permanently protect the Las Cucharillas Marsh, one of the last open spaces in the area and one of the largest wetlands ecosystems in the region."
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Brief explanation of who is Rosa Hilda Ramos and what she did with the CUCCo.
[click to view]

Other documents

[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Waldemar J. González Bauzá, UPR Mayagüez
Last update10/07/2017
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