Bogged-Down Agency Awaits Modernization

July 2, 2004

AS anyone who has tried it probablyknows, the process of obtaining the stampof approval from the National TechnicalSecretariat of the Environment Ministry(SETENA) to begin work on a developmentproject of any kind may feel somethinglike time travel.SETENA uses paper. Lots of paper.For some projects, such as a house inan already developed area, the stack can beabout the size of a chemistry textbook.In other cases, such as a proposed goldmine or hydroelectric dam near a wildliferefuge, the stack becomes numerousstacks, and those can easily fill boxes orbookshelves worth of binders.The files are transferred from oneunderstaffed department to the next, andnew cases flow in faster than the employeescan send them along (see separatestory).As a result, developers sometimes haveto wait years to get SETENA’s approval,and, according to senior SETENA officials,some grow impatient and start constructionwithout it.WITH the problem intensifying eversince a 2002 Supreme Court ruling requiringSETENA to review every project in thecountry with the potential for any kind ofenvironmental impact, employees of theorganization say they are restlessly awaitingthe long-promised digitalization andrestructuring of the process that would cutdown on delays and paperwork.But the modernization of SETENAappears to be moving about as slowly asanything in the organization’s bogged downoffices.Mariano Peinador, head of theDepartment of Environmental ImpactStudies, said the process of modernizationhas been in discussion since the administrationof former President Miguel AngelRodríguez (1998-2002). The current modernizationproject was unveiled at the CasaPresidencial on July 23, 2002 by his successor,President Abel Pacheco.Since then, personnel have beenrequired to keep electronic copies of files,but they are normally only saved on floppydisks or CDs taped to the inside of thepaper file. The files are saved using numerousdifferent programs that are oftenincompatible, Peinador said.A new regulation signed three weeksago will require all files to be saved in onestandard format, he said, and will establishthat SETENA create a Web site containingall the contents of the files of every projectin PDF format. From the site, the publicwill be able to search the files to see if aproject has an approved environmentalimpact study, the status of the file, or anyother bit of pertinent information.Peinador said SETENA will have 15days after the regulation is published in theofficial government newspaper La Gacetato have the Web site up and running.“Theoretically,” he said. “I don’t thinkit will be that fast.”The regulation will also dramaticallysimplify SETENA’s structure, Peinadorsaid. SETENA is divided into a multi agencycommission and five other departmentscalled “processes.” He said whenthe regulation becomes official after itspublication, SETENA will have the commissionand two departments – InstitutionalManagement and Management ofProjects Requiring Environmental ImpactStudies.SETENA, created in 1996, currentlyhas 30 employees. Peinador said the newregulation will provide for 20 more,including a fourth lawyer for the LegalAdvising Department.Elizabeth Araya, one of SETENA’slegal advisors, told The Tico Times lastweek that one of the new employees (butnot the fourth lawyer) could be occupiednearly full-time sending faxes.Araya patted the massive file for theLas Crucitas project, a controversial open pitgold mine in the Northern Zone allowedto proceed in the face of a moratorium onmining because the company managing it,Industrias Infinitas S.A., had a governmentconcession before the moratorium went intoeffect.She said approximately 1,500 peoplehave formally requested to be included as“apersonados” in the file, meaning that eachone of them must be notified each time theproject moves one step further toward gainingfinal approval from SETENA – the laststep before mining can beginFOR example, she said, a public meetingto discuss the proposed mine is scheduledfor July 31. This entails that SETENAsend 1,500 faxes notifying the apersonadosof the meeting. If the date changes, SETENAmust send them all again.In spite of the digitalization, Peinadorsaid, for legal purposes it will still be necessaryto maintain paper copies of all SETENAdocuments – but they will no longer bethe only copies and they won’t be reliedupon for intra-office communication.Peinador said the regulation will bepublished in La Gaceta as soon as SETENAcan purchase space in the publication,but did not say when that might be.He said Environment Minister CarlosManuel Rodríguez has given the project“much priority,” but it has run into numerousadministrative delays.SUCH delays are something of a way oflife around SETENA, especially since the2002 Supreme Court ruling, employees say.The ruling established that any project,no matter the size, can cause significantenvironmental damage, Peinador said.Peinador, glancing at a backlog of 34environmental impact studies his departmenthas yet to review, said adapting to thenew influx of work since the ruling is“very difficult. A lot of work. Too much.It’s that way for all of us.”SETENA Secretary General EduardoMadrigal, who took the helm in 2002(TT, Dec. 6, 2002), was not available forcomment on the modernization processthis week.

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