The installation of telecommunications towers in the Island would be practically automatic with a mere request by an applicant, if the recommendation is accepted to typify the construction of these structures as a category exclusion.
Last May 2, the president of the Telecommunications Regulatory Board (JRT, by its Spanish acronym), Sandra Torres, sent a letter to the president of the Environmental Quality Board (JCA, by its Spanish acronym), Tania Vázquez, with her petition which, by press time, was still under evaluation.
Having learned of the letter’s content, several voices came out yesterday and said they’ll ask the JCA for a hearing to express their rejection to the proposal. In their opinion, to typify the construction of telecommunications towers as a category exclusion, no only assumes circumventing the corresponding environmental scrutiny, but it would actually encourage the proliferation of these structures, which impacts on health are a matter of debate.
By definition of the JCA, category exclusions are predictable or routine actions, that in the normal course of their execution will not have a significant environmental impact. Also deemed as such are remediation actions, carried out by any agency or private entity, intended to protect the environment.
The purpose of category exclusions, adds the JCA, is that certain actions may be automatically deemed to be in environmental compliance, such that the planning process may be made “agile and efficient.”
At this time, there are over 100 actions listed as category exclusions, ranging from medical dispensaries, to funeral parlors without embalming facilities and activity rooms in closed structures, to the construction of concrete enclosures, improvements to wells, and leather goods. The JCA must update the list –at least– every two years or when deemed pertinent.
Vázquez said that Torres’ letter came to her attention this same week, and was immediately referred to the Governing Board of the JCA, who will determine whether or not to accept the petition “pursuant to the laws and regulations.”
Reform to permits
In her communication, Torres argued that her petition is connected to the recently passed reform on permits, which makes possible expedient evaluation and adjudication processes.
“This rationale follows a natural reasoning, since the case is one of facilities that are shaped through a construction (activity) that, during its normal course of execution does not have a significant environmental impact,” states the letter that El Nuevo Día has had access to.
Questioned in that regard, she said the jurisdiction of the JRT “is limited” to the towers’ construction, because “the environmental lies in the field” of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
“When I talk about construction, it’s not only the side yards, the height and the tower’s fall radius. All this has a footprint, (of) more or less, 900 square feet. That is what we are petitioning the JCA to include as part of its definition for category exclusion,” she said.
According to Torres, the current evaluation and permit adjudication process for telecommunications towers is “slow,” so that it “requires expediency.”
“We need to increase the technological resources available to us and improve coverage through the transmission of mobile telephones, because we have saturation problems. We have isolated communities, without mobile and internet service, and this goes right along with the plan to expand and deploy broadband,” she added in justification.
The petition, she assured, came not from any representative of the telecommunications industry, but from the “decision by the majority” of JRT members.
The JRT has 1,040 towers on record, a figure not including “roof top” antennas, or “building” antennas, said Torres. According to the Communities Front against the Proliferation of Antennas, in Puerto Rico there are installed 2,000 towers, with over 20,000 antennas and microwave dishes.
In the opinion of the Front’s spokesperson, Wilson Rivera Ramos, the JRT’s intention is clear: to eliminate the environmental evaluation around telecommunications towers, in order to allow its location in ecologically sensitive areas.
“This would further challenge the access we communities have to be heard and promote our struggles. The ground we have won with our struggles is due, precisely, to that we’ve been able to demonstrate the intention to erect towers in critical habitats. These towers have caused a lot of damage, which is why we cannot agree with its being typified as category exclusions,” he said.
He added that the Front is ready to present the JCA evidence –“of sufficient cases-” of tower installations which have experienced problems with land removal, destruction of habitats of endangered bird species, and location in violation of regulations.
“To approve what the JRT is asking for would mean giving a green light to private businesses to locate its antennas wherever they want, and strip us of the safeguards we have had up to now,” Rivera Ramos said.
A similar point was made by attorney Pedro Saadé, from the Environmental Law Clinic of the University of Puerto Rico, who said that Torres’ letter provides no “valid” justification to eliminate the environmental evaluation for the construction of towers.
“In recent years, the environmental scrutiny has increasingly become more pro forma, so that cases are approved very quickly. What they want now is to eliminate this requirement when what they should do is to strengthen it,” he said.
Saadé, who has been legal representative of some communities in their struggle against the towers, criticized the JRT for becoming a “spokesperson and figurehead” of the industry and for “ignoring” citizens’ demands.
“In the cases where I’ve worked, I’ve not once seen the JRT objecting to a petition for a construction permit. These towers bring a lot of hardship on these people,” he explained, after saying that Torres’ letter is the most recent example of the “erroneous premise” from the Ricardo Rosselló administration, of speeding up permits (granting) as a justification for economic development.
For her part, planner Ela Cruz said that, in 2013, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) granted something akin to a category exclusion (“blanket clearance letter”) for telecommunications towers, as long as they meet certain requirements.
In 2015, the federal agency told the FCC that it had revoked the blanket clearance letter to a petitioner, for giving false information on the property where its tower would be located. The following year, the USFWS rescinded the use of the mechanism for these projects.
“This case evidences serious faults and a lack of clear and accurate information furnished by petitioners during the evaluation process for these towers. To include these types of projects as a category exclusion, prevents organizations and agencies from conducting an analysis on the possible negative impact they may have not only on the ground the tower will be located, but also on roads, and modifications that might be required to erect it,” Cruz said.
Meantime, pediatric surgeon Iván Figueroa Otero warned against the possible health effects resulting from electromagnetic pollution.
In 2012, he recalled, the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that exposure to microwaves, specifically those emanating from mobile telephones, increase the likelihood of brain tumors by 40%.
According to the physician, the microwaves emitted by mobile telephones are the same as those from telecommunications towers.
Figueroa Otero admitted, however, that the WHO study and others that followed are not conclusive or binding, an argument used by the industry –and agencies– to defend their work.
In fact, Torres responded to these allegations that antennas are “non-ionizing,” so that its impact on health is 5,000 less than the transmission of electric power.
“These issues with radiation emissions have been addressed by the FCC,” said the official.
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