Puerto Rico’s Via Verde
By David Galarza Santa (January 30, 2012)
The people of Puerto Rico had until today, January 30, 2012, to express their views on one of the largest and potentially most destructive and controversial projects they have ever confronted: the 92-mile long Via Verde gas pipeline project. Yet, the agency charged with making this decision, the US Army Corps of Engineers district office in Jacksonville, Florida, has refused to translate the 110-page Via Verde Environmental Assessment into Spanish. Only 19 percent of the Island’s population is bilingual.
The refusal to translate this document follows a long pattern of deceit and back-room deal-making that started when Puerto Rico’s Governor Luis Fortuño declared a state of energy emergency designed to maintain secrecy, fast-track the permit process and thwart full public participation in the discussion of the project. This was done to avoid compliance with basic standards and procedural safeguards for the construction of such a high-risk project.
Public opposition to the project, however, remains strong, with polls indicating that nearly 80% of the people of Puerto Rico oppose the construction of the pipeline. On May 1st of last year over 30,000 people marched against the pipeline under a torrential downpour in the central mountain town of Adjuntas. A larger national march has been called for February 19th beginning at the Army Corps office in San Juan and ending at the Governor’s mansion.
Widespread sectors of Puerto Rican society are also united in their opposition to this project, including Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas, church groups, cultural, professional and political organizations, academics, labor unions, community groups and Puerto Rican citizens and environmental activists in the United States. In Washington, Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Chicago has fearlessly and passionately raised the issue and has demanded increased scrutiny and transparency.
Ironically, Via Verde is not a viable solution for Puerto Rico’s energy needs. The infrastructure and the necessary permits to supply the gas could take 10 years to obtain. It is also not an economic alternative since studies have shown that the pipeline will provide savings of only one cent per kilowatt-hour. Those savings hardly justify the billion dollar price tag for Via Verde given a dire economic climate, widespread poverty and high unemployment rates on the island. Tens of millions have already been spent on the project, most on no-bid contracts given to consultants with close ties to the Governor.
Studies have also shown that this project would have an environmental impact larger than any other project carried out in Puerto Rico in decades. It will cross through 235 rivers and streams, impact the habitat of 34 endangered species and threaten the critical Conservation Zone of the Northern Karsts that produces 25 persent of the water consumed in Puerto Rico. Via Verde would cross near homes, schools, colleges, churches, public beaches, factories, and densely transited freeways, and would put the health, life and homes of over 200,000 people at risk. It would also threaten important archeological areas of Puerto Rico’s indigenous Taino people.
President Obama’s rejection of the similarly destructive 1,700-mile long Keystone XL pipeline last week raised hopes in the Island that Via Verde would soon meet the same fate. Indeed, the Island’s usually conservative Association of Engineers recently issued a strongly worded statement opposing the project and even the Governor, perhaps fearing that Via Verde could become an election year liability, has asked the Energy Authority to explore cheaper, quicker solutions, although he has refused to withdraw the application.
Today, the very survival of the planet calls for nations across the world to move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable, sustainable sources of energy. Puerto Rico, an island blessed with the tropical sun and the winds and waves of the ocean, should be at the forefront of such efforts creating new jobs and preserving valuable resources.
With the majority of Puerto Ricans now living Stateside, where the Via Verde decision is being made, it is especially important for us, other Latinos and the environmental justice community to play a role in supporting the struggle of Puerto Ricans on the island to protect and preserve Puerto Rico for present and future generations.
If you’re in New York City, join us today, January 30th, for our news conference at Noon (changed from 5pm) at 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan. Together we will express our unequivocal opposition to Via Verde, publicly endorse the national march in Puerto Rico on February 19th and call on our brothers and sisters in the diaspora and our allies to say NO AL GASODUCTO!
David Galarza Santa is a union and social justice activist. He’s a member of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and is on the council of Trinity Lutheran Church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. He joined several activists last year in forming NY Contra el Gasoducto to support efforts in Puerto Rico to defeat the Via Verde pipeline. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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