San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

State of Emergency Requested

Fourteen months after the discovery of adiesel and oil leak into a drinking reservoir inBarreal de Heredia, authorities are taking sudden,decisive action: the National EmergencyCommission (CNE) called for a declaration ofemergency Wednesday that, if signed byPresident Abel Pacheco as expected, will loosengovernment purse strings for the expensivecleanup. The polluted reservoir, under the auspicesof the Heredia Public Services Company(ESPH), is 160 meters deep and coated with anoil slick 20 meters below the presumed source ofthe leak – a gas station that was closed after discoveringthe problem.So far, there is no sign the gas has contaminatedother reservoirs or aquifers, but if it does, as authoritiessuspect it could, it will render undrinkable thetap water of up to 320,000 people in Heredia andSan José (TT, June 24).Heaping further pressure on the embattled NationalWater and Sewer Institute (AyA) – which faced at leastone other water-quality controversy earlier this yearwhen a study showed dangerously high nitrate levels indrinking water, and is now embroiled in an epic workers’strike – residents of an upscale neighborhood in Santa Ana, west of San José, discovered feces in their tap water this week.Environment Minister Carlos ManuelRodríguez, meanwhile, maintains thatwater pollution here is dire enough to warrantnot a regional, but a national state ofemergency.CLEANUP of the Barreal spill willinvolve high-priced pumps suited to thetask and foreign specialists who know howto operate them. The gas and oil mixture isnot only toxic, but flammable, and effortsto extract it from the water could result inan explosion, according to Rafael Villalta,AyA president.The emergency declaration will freefunds not only to contract a private companyto clean the spill, but also to hire specialiststo study and improve gas stationsaround the country to prevent such spillsand “Ojalá (God willing) protect the country’saquifers,” Villalta told The TicoTimes.It will also fund further research todetermine the extent of the pollution andthe odds that it will seep into the generalwater supply.Critics decried bureaucratic inaction inJune when the CNE declined to request astate of emergency declaration, saying thesituation did not “meet certain judicial criterianecessary to declare an emergency,”(TT, June 24). The difference betweenthen, nine months after the spill was firstdiscovered, and now is unclear, and CNEofficials did not explain – they did notrespond to Tico Times phone calls overthree days this week.VILLALTA’S institution has involveditself with the pollution from the beginning,he said, and made the recommendationto the CNE that it request a state ofemergency. It has paid more than ¢50 million($102,000) to date for a quality controlstudy of the water and for the salaries ofpersonnel handling the issue, he said.Regardless of AyA’s response, criticshave heckled the government’s reaction tothe spill, saying authorities have had theirhands tied in red tape (TT, June 24) – compoundedby the fact that the Environmentand Energy Ministry (MINAE) had onlyone inspector to watch over the country’s650 gas stations. The inspector didn’t discoverthe leak from the station; rather, thewater service provider, ESPH, discoveredthe contaminants during a routine test inSeptember 2004.An inter-institutional commission ofofficials from the Health Ministry, AyA,ESPH and the Belén Municipality, whichmanages the region, was formed after thediscovery of the pollution to study it andwatch over any possible seepage into otherwells and water sources. It still has notdetermined how the gas and oil infiltratedthe water, or how deeply it has penetratedinto the aquifer that feeds the well.MINISTER Rodríguez told The TicoTimes a state of emergency for this particularcase is not enough.“I support the declaration, but weshould do something more significant. Itwould be more opportune to declare a stateof emergency in the whole country,” hesaid, claiming that water sources aroundthe country are polluted to such an extentthat only drastic government interventionwill save them.Why won’t that happen? “The agriculturalsector resists,” he said. “It has a lot ofinfluence, especially the Farmers Chamber,which is an organization that does notbelieve in environmental protection becausethey are the biggest polluters.”In April, scientists at the UniversidadNacional, also in Heredia, released a studyclaiming septic tank leaks and chemicalrunoff from coffee plantations had laceddrinking water with dangerous levels ofcarcinogens (TT, April 15). AyA officialscontested the finding, saying the levelswere within international norms using adifferent standard than the UNA scientists(TT, April 29, May 27).RESIDENTS of Santa Ana’s Bosquesde Lindora neighborhood and commercialdistrict say that when they discovered fecesin their tap water this week, they could notcontact AyA officials, who were presumablytied up with its general strike that isnow in its 33rd day.Workers are asking for an 18% salaryincrease, and have so far rejected the lowerincreases offered by the government.Yesterday, the strike received a major setbackwhen the Second Circuit Labor Courtin San José reversed an Oct. 26 ruling thatthe strike was legal. (The governmentappealed that decision, prompting thereversal.)Since it is now illegal, workers will notreceive wages for days missed. TheNational Association of Public and PrivateEmployees (ANEP) has announced it mayorganize a national strike in support of theAyA employees. The strike has not affectedthe supply of drinking water – thoughworkers now threaten that might change,according to wire service ACAN-EFE –but it has affected other services such asbill collection and, apparently, service atthe AyA information line.Bosques de Lindora residents tried tocall the line but only reached an answeringmachine, the daily La Nación reported.Their tap water appeared cloudy withbrown particles, which the residents hadtested at a private laboratory. The testsshowed the particles were fecal matter.AYA investigators discovered a sewageleak nearby and were expected to haverepaired it by press time.“I want to say that we are now takingaction and are doing everything to figureout what happened,” Villalta told TheTico Times.Sewage problems are nothing new toAyA, either. San José’s dilapidatedsewage system sloughs off untreatedwaste into rivers and leaves 55% of thepopulation without access to the system(TT, Feb. 4). It is due for a tune-up,which should come in the form of a $437-million overhaul planned for 2009.Meanwhile, a third of San José residentshave noticed raw sewage in the greatermetropolitan area, according to a 2004survey AyA commissioned.

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