PRELIMINARY work on a hydroelectricdam project in the remote area ofPocosol, in the Northern Zone, was haltedafter the San Ramón MunicipalCouncil decided that the energy cooperativeConeléctricas, which manages theproject, must reevaluate the project’senvironmental impact.The dam would be the first constructedunder the Rural Cooperative EnergyProduction Law, signed by President AbelPacheco in early 2003. The President firstrefused to sign it and then agreed to, solong as a second bill was drafted to retractcertain aspects of the law, such as thosethat allow construction of dams in protectedareas (TT, Feb. 28, March 7, 2003).However, no such bill is in the worksThe Technical Secretariat (SETENA)of the Environment and Energy Ministryconfirmed for The Tico Times thatConeléctricas does not have an approvedenvironmental impact study to begin workon the project.ACCORDING to representatives ofthe Environment and Energy Ministry(MINAE) in San Ramón who visited thesite last week, if the cooperative continueswork it could permanently damage thearea’s ecosystem, which includes a delicateaquifer and numerous springs thatfeed the Peñas Blancas River.At least one member of SETENA saidthe project had not produced any significantenvironmental damage. According to localauthorities, Luis Fernando González ofSETENA inspected the project site withConeléctricas environmental coordinatorLuis Torres and determined that the negativeimpact on the environment was minimal.The inspection was conducted withoutthe presence of members of the municipalityof San Ramón, MINAE officials or representativesof the Monteverde ConservationLeague, which administers theChildren’s Eternal Rain Forest, a privatereserve adjacent to the site of the dam.THE municipality questioned Fernández’sassertion and sent its own representativesand personnel from MINAE toinspect the project. After that inspection,they ordered the roadwork stopped.Thus far, the cooperative has onlywidened pre-existing roads, according toofficials from Coneléctricas.It was not clear as of press timewhether widening the roads constituted“work” on the project.FÉLIX Villalobos, of the San RamónMINAE office, said the company’s activityhas destroyed some old-growth forest andcould be causing undue amounts of sedimentto be deposited in the Peñas BlancasRiver. He also said the company is workingdangerously close to several springs.“If they continue the work they’redoing, they’re going to provoke irreversibledamage,” Villalobos said.However, he said, most of the damagehas been limited to secondary forests.VILLALOBOS said he authored tworeports about the company’s work thatwere filed as official judicial complaintswith the San Carlos Prosecutor’s office,and a third is under way. He said thereports address the damage caused alongthree different one-kilometer stretches nearthe river that he claims puts the companyin violation of Article 33 of the Forest Law.Article 33 mandates that no constructioncan take place within 100 meters of springsor 15 meters of rivers in rural areas.Allan Artavia, head of the Municipalityof San Ramón’s Natural ResourcesOffice, said the company hasmade major earth movements and felledsome trees near the river.“It is a very fragile zone. We are veryworried,” Artavia said.The river, area residents say, hasalready suffered irreparable damage as aresult of other hydroelectric dams.Sediment-filled water released from thePeñas Blancas dam, run by the Costa RicanElectricity Institute (ICE), asphyxiatedthousands of fish in October of last year. InApril, some 500,000 kilograms ofmolasses spilled into the river after a tankat a sugar factory exploded, causing anothermassive fish kill (TT, April 30).“There aren’t rivers like there werebefore. The people can no longer use themfor fishing,” Artavia said. “There used to beplaces they could go with their families onthe weekends, but that’s no longer possible.”IN one case, the company may haveworked directly through private property.Longtime residents Robert and JaneKoutnik (parents of Tico Times editorAuriana Koutnik) own property in thearea, and claim that the company has bulldozed100 meters through their land toconstruct an access road.The Koutniks worked with the CostaRican Federation for the Conservation ofthe Environment (FECON) to file a formalcomplaint against the company regardingthe road, which they call illegal.Coneléctricas representatives did notrespond to a request for a response to theallegations by press time.CONELÉCTRICAS general managerCarlos Rodríguez said in a written statementthat the cooperative has received“important support” from the community,which has “motivated (the company) tomove forward with the project.”Rodríguez said the company has completedan environmental impact study andhas not started actual work on the dam project.He said he could not understand whyanyone would talk about “irreversible damage.”He mentioned that Coneléctricas purchased300 hectares in the area, only 10% ofwhich will be developed, and that the restwill be recuperated so that the area will bemore environmentally healthy than beforeconstruction of the three-meter dam.“OUR plan has always been to continuewith the procedures to construct theproject, giving maximum consideration tothe fact that the people who oppose it arefew, and the majority of them are not residentsof the area; what’s more, the advancementof the Environmental Impact Studyindicated positive results for its development,therefore we are not going to let theopportunity to construct the project escapeus,” Rodríguez wrote to The Tico Times.However, Artavia said the cooperative“didn’t come near the municipality beforestarting work.”“To this date, the company hasn’tbrought forth any information about thework they’ve done,” he said.