San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Gas Station Ignites Conflict, Residents of the northern Pacific coast allege project threatens the Nosara River and Ostional National Wildlife Refuge.

The days of exposed drums of gas and jerrycans in the tiny Pacific coastal town of Nosaramay be numbered, but some residents say thewildlife downstream might have an equallyshort trip to the grave.Construction is nearly finished on theServicentro Nosara, a new service station that featuressunken gas cisterns and squeeze-handledpumps – the kind of city-slicker filler-ups that aresometimes anomalous in backwaters like this one.The technology is welcome, residents say, theproblem is its location.THE service station is plopped in a flood zone nearthe convergence of the Nosara River and a tributary in afragile wetland, opponents say, a zone penciled in redon emergency crews’ maps for the temperamental high-watermark the rivers have reached in years past.Downstream, the Nosara River teams with fish thatsustain area families and drains into the surf along a prime sea-turtle nesting area, the OstionalNational Wildlife Refuge.Most agree, however, the new station isa sorely needed service for a communitythat is 45 minutes by car from the nearestexisting station.RESIDENTS and emergency workers,including the president of the Red CrossNosara chapter, Carlos Villalobos, said thezone floods as much as once or twice peryear, with the water rising above the gas station’sfloor level.Bobbi Johnson, 15-year resident andpresident of Nosara’s Civic Association,told The Tico Times the area where the stationis built has been under 10 feet of watertwice in the past decade.Station owner Roberto Suárez, however,told The Tico Times he wouldn’t have builtthe station where it is if it were as prone toflooding as people say.His technical adviser, architectNicolás Murillo, said the property wasfilled in and raised two meters “to avoidproblems from possible floods,” a possibilityhe said he doubts.ROBERTO Zúñiga, chief of naturalresources management for the TempisqueConservation Area, a department of theEnvironment Ministry (MINAE) that managesprotected land in the northern Pacificzone, said the land not onlyfloods, it is an unregisteredextension of the protectedOstional estuary wetlands.His advice, compoundedwith an independent studythat yielded the same conclusion,prompted theOmbudsman’s Office in early2002 to recommend constructionbe declared off limitsin the region.Another study by a teamfrom the University of CostaRica in early 2004 bolsteredthe calls for protection.It called the constructionof a gas station at the site“definitively harmful to the local andregional environment.”PROTESTS notwithstanding, afterreceiving green lights from the network ofgovernment institutions responsible forsuch projects, Nosara Mayor BernardoVargas granted permission for constructionto begin.“We approve whatever construction thatcomplies with all the requisites of the law,everything duly stamped. Legally, we cannotdeny permission,” Vargas said.“It’s important to see both sides of thecoin, one is prevention and environmentalimpact, and the other is a gas station that’seasily accessible to everyone,” he added.ANTONIO Méndez, president ofNicoya’s Municipal Council, which has nosay in the approval of construction permits,said the whole community is againstthe station.“We need it, yes, but not there. The priceis too high there. You see all the people,women and children, riding bikes with twoor three fish hanging from the bikes, but allthat will disappear. There’s no pollution inthe river now, but if the station is built andthere’s a spill…”That won’t happen, architect Murillosaid. A treatment plant for rain runoff willkeep spilled gas and oil from washing intothe rivers. The holding tank for used oil iselevated, and the underground holdingtanks are sealed in concrete and protectedwith drainage systems to keep rainwaterout, he added.JOHNSON and other residents haveprotested in force. At a meeting held inSeptember 2004 they presented a petitionsigned by 500 residents of Nosaradenouncing the possible environmentalhazard the station could present.Some residents who spoke to The TicoTimes said they think palms were greasedat the National Technical Secretariat of theEnvironment Ministry (SETENA), thegovernment office that approved an environmental-impact study for the station inOctober 2002.“Everyone says that when things don’tgo their way,” Marta Chaves, a SETENAgeologist, responded when questioned aboutthe allegations.Patricia Campos, Secretary General ofSETENA, defended the agency’s decisionin January of this year in a letter to theEnvironment Ministry’s EnvironmentalTribunal.“EVERY service station represents arisk,” the letter began, but “new legislationimposes strict limits (to ensure) environmentalsafety protection that minimizesthose risks.“Most of the town of Nosara suffersperiodic flooding,” the letter concluded severalpages later. “Even so, every kind ofhuman activity has been allowed as long assufficient prevention measures are taken.”Shops that sell gas out of drums andchange oil are not regulated,and pollute the environmentwhen they flood, shewrote. This station, outfittedwith proper spill preventionand water-treatmentmechanisms, will“improve the environmentalsituation and reduce thenecessity to resort to illegalgas sales and vehicle maintenance.”JOHNSON said it is amatter of outsiders’ ignorance.“I figure they’re just abunch of guys in San Joséwho don’t know about it.They didn’t contact any of the locals,anyway. They should have notified thetown before it was considered and theonly town meeting was in September(2004) when it was halfway done. Then,lots of people spoke up against it.”The Ombudsman in late June 2004 firedan urgent missive to SETENA and theDirectorship of Gasoline Transport andTrade (DGTCC) calling for “immediateintervention” and the “paralysis of activities”until the National WetlandsCommission has ruled on the issue andproper measures are taken to “avoid theirreparable loss of this ecosystem.”One week later, the Civic Association,backed by the Ombudsman’s Office, filedan official complaint with theConstitutional Chamber of the SupremeCourt (Sala IV).THE ensuing months were entangledwith disputes between Suárez, protestingresidents and the Municipality of Nosara,which ordered Suárez to stop construction.Suárez did not, saying the municipalityhad misinterpreted the Sala IV’s statementabout how to proceed while it examined theissue.Finally, the Civic Association filed a formalcomplaint with MINAE’s EvironmentalTribunal in January, prompting an unambiguousorder to stop construction.By then Suárez had finished, awaitingonly a delivery of gas and products to fill hisshelves to inaugurate the business.He told The Tico Times this week he hascomplied with the order to halt work, andwill await the decision of the tribunal beforeproceeding.

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