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EPA Cracks Down on Illegal Development of Wetlands in Western Puerto Rico

Release Date: 8/2/2005
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FOR RELEASE: Tuesday, August 2, 2005

(#05088) San Juan, Puerto Rico -- As part of its continuing effort to protect wetlands in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is making two companies caught illegally filling wetlands in the western part of the island, restore the damaged areas where possible, or create new wetlands to mitigate the loss. The work is part of settlements with two developers that include financial penalties totaling more than $125,000.

"These developers thought they could ignore federal law but EPA will continue to crack down on them if they don't get a proper permit before developing a wetland," said Kathleen C. Callahan, Acting EPA Regional Administrator. "Violators will be forced to pay the cost of mitigating the damage they caused, plus pay fines when they break the law."

Wetlands, commonly called swamps or marshes, are valuable public assets. In fact, if rain forests have been called the lungs of the ecosystem, then wetlands could be called its kidneys. Wetlands naturally filter chemicals and other contaminants from our inland and coastal waterways and help control erosion, especially during storms. Wetlands also nurture and sustain a vast array of bird, plant, aquatic and animal life. Damaging or eliminating wetlands can cause devastation up and down the food chain. Wetlands also provide recreational opportunities, aesthetic benefits, sites for research and education, and support commercial fisheries.

Last September, EPA filed a complaint against Hector M. Torres Zayas, President of Ciudad Centro, Inc. and Pablo H. Padro, President 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. EPA ordered them to remove the fill and replant aquatic vegetation. After Mr. Torres Zayas and Mr. Padro demonstrated good faith by removing most of the illegal fill, EPA settled for a payment of $87,000. The violators are removing the remainder of the fill and restoration of the site is ongoing.

Also last September, EPA issued a complaint against Dennis Bechara, Esq., the president of Western Shopping Center, Norte, Inc. and Hector del Rio Torres, the president of Tamrio, Inc., for building in a wetland without a permit. After having difficulties obtaining a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, they constructed Western Industrial Park in Mayaguez and impacted 1.9 acres of wetlands. EPA ordered these companies to remove portions of the illegal fill and create at least twice as many acres of new wetlands. In the settlement, the companies agreed to remove some of the illegal fill and provide compensation by creating new wetlands at a nearby site that will be five times the size of the wetlands lost. Western Shopping Center, Norte, Inc. also agreed to preserve the unfilled wetlands surrounding the industrial park where they had planned to construct more industrial lots. EPA estimates that Western will have to spend $700,000 to complete these actions and has imposed a $40,000 penalty , which the violators have agreed to pay.

The cases were referred to EPA by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also enforces wetlands regulations. Anyone planning construction activities in wetlands or streams must contact the Corps of Engineers well in advance to obtain a permit. For information go to: www.epa.gov/region02/water/wetlands, or 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/.