Although the public debate covered the potential impact of the Oversight Board on areas such as health, education and political status, it's no less true that the decisions of this new authority—which hasn't been established yet—regarding the Island's environment and natural resources would have effects as serious, if not more so, as on the first issues mentioned.
An example of this is that, according to the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), the board could enforce a public policy for the sale or transfer of protected areas for their high environmental value, with the objective of acquiring money for the repayment of the debt. It could also label energy and infrastructure projects as "critical," which means the acquisition of permits and environmental assessments would be subject to expedited processes, under the premise that the launch of these projects would result in an economic benefit for the Island.
Likewise, the board would have absolute power to repeal environmental laws, executive orders and regulations they understand interfere with economic development. They would also have the final word regarding the budget for environmental agencies, which puts the continuity of protection, conservation and sustainability projects and initiatives at risk or in question.
“We should become aware of the other angle of environmental implications the board poses, which have always been there, but haven't received as much attention. The board could seriously affect the environment by diverting resources to prioritize the payment of the debt," said attorney Pedro Saadé, from the Environmental Law clinic of the University of Puerto Rico.
Regarding the sale or transfer of protected natural areas, planner and environmental scientist Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera explained it could be the case for those whose ownership is not under the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources.
He mentioned that examples of those areas "at risk of sale" were an area of about 800 acres in the Northeast Ecological Corridor that belongs to the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company and the Lands Administration, zones from Caño Tiburones that belong to the Land Authority, and parts of the Tortuguero Lagoon that belong to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, among others.
“As long as there's someone interested in buying, the board will be able to sell these areas and many more," Rivera Herrera explained. He also noted that lands with high agricultural value could suffer the same fate as the environmental areas, which would "threaten" the Island's food security.
“If the board's role is to manage to pay the debt, we have to remember that a big part of the bankrupt public corporations owe more than their worth, and the only remaining asset they could monetize is the land," added Rivera Herrera, who is also a 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize recipient. Rivera Herrera said he is aware of the "legal and moral duty" to pay the public debt, which currently adds up to $69 billion, but he insisted that "it cannot be" at the expense of our natural and environmental heritage.
Meanwhile, Saadé pointed out that Chapter 5 in PROMESA established a special procedure for "critical" energy and infrastructure projects. The "Revitalization Coordinator"—which was also created by PROMESA and would report directly to the board—would be in charge of evaluating these projects.
Saadé warned that this special procedure suggests "secrecy" and press access problems, insofar as the Revitalization Coordinator is not obligated to reveal who is requesting that a project be labeled as critical. This request may come from an agency or a private company (project proposers).
“The law does require that the officer's (coordinator) report be made public once they complete their evaluation of whether a project is critical or not. The officer has a designated time to recommend to the board if a project should be considered or not," he added.
PROMESA forces local agencies to develop expedited processes for the consideration of critical projects, especially regarding permits and environmental assessments. Saadé and Rivera Herrera agreed that this regulation is very similar to the structure created by former Governor Luis Fortuño in 2010, when he decreed a state of emergency for the Island. Back then, the agencies were given a 30-day period to complete the evaluation of "renewable energy" projects, which was how the waste incinerators proposed for Arecibo by the company Energy Answers and the aborted gas pipeline (Vía Verde) came to be endorsed.
“This is another kind of energy emergency, and the signs point to this being negotiated by people like Fortuño himself, and sponsored with money from projects that could benefit from it," Saadé suggested.
According to Myrna Conty, coordinator of the Coalition of Anti-Incineration Organizations, PROMESA "is tailor-made" for Energy Answers because another one of its regulations is that the federal agencies offering financial aid to projects must give first priority to "critical" projects. She recalled that Energy Answers currently has a loan application pending with the USDA's Rural Utilities Service.
“You can't fast-track the evaluation of environmental projects, because they won't happen in the long run, or they will bring consequences. It's clear as a bell that this act was made specifically for the incinerator, under the false pretense that it will bring jobs and improve the economy,” Conty stated.
The spokesperson for the environmental defense group "Toabajeños en Defensa del Ambiente," Juan Camacho, made similar statements after remarking that the board could label other projects as critical, such as the expansion of highway PR-22, running from Hatillo to Aguadilla, and new gas pipelines. As for the reality of the board's absolute powers, Camacho said that "the remaining alternatives are taking to the streets and fighting, not only against the attack on natural resources, but also against the other issues."
Rivera Herrera also urged greater civil participation and activism.
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