WITH the northwestern province of Guanacaste gearing up to distribute gasoline containing a small but significant percentage of bioethanol (see separate story) and government institutions broadcasting their support of a gradual reduction in the contaminants present in fuel in Costa Rica, it may seem like the days of exhaust and fuel toxicity are numbered.For years now, however, according to Sandra Gallegos, a chemical engineer with the Public Services Regulatory Authority (ARESEP), these authorities have disregarded ARESEP’s persistent calls for stricter norms to reduce the amount of carcinogenic substances in fuel, and the speedy enforcement of such norms.For the past three years, ARESEP tried to pass a set of regulations to limit these substances, encountering resistance, rather than support, from the Ministry of Economy, Industry and Commerce, the Ministry of the Environment and Energy (MINAE) and the National Oil Refinery (RECOPE), Gallegos told The Tico Times – though those organizations dispute her claims and disagree over who is responsible for effecting such changes.Although the Ministry of Public Health recently published a study showing that pollution generated by cars ends up costing the country’s health-care system millions of dollars each year, this and other ministries, as well as President Abel Pacheco, now face a ruling against them by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) saying the authorities were guilty of negligence in the area of air pollution.ACCORDING to Gallegos, ARESEP started studying the impact and amount of toxic substances in the fuel sold in Costa Rica more than five years ago, an initiative that resulted in the regulations they have been promoting. Their studies revealed several unregulated carcinogenic and asthma-inducing substances in fuel, including benzene, aromatic hydrocarbons and olephine components, the engineer said.Although the country’s hydrocarbon regulation, which sets limits on contaminants in fuel, dates back to 1997, the Ministry of the Economy’s Technical Regulation Office has rejected the new norms ARESEP has presented to them, she said, claiming that rather than setting higher standards for Costa Rica, the ministry encourages homogeneous standards for the permitted levels of toxins in fuel in Central America.According to Gallegos, this rejection detracts from the power invested in the Regulatory Authority by a 1996 law that establishes it as the institution in charge of supervising the enforcement of the country’s general standards of quality for public services.“ARESEP is supposed to prepare these norms and the Executive Branch is supposed to publicize them. The Executive Branch should limit itself to publicizing them (rather than rejecting them),” she told The Tico Times.An Economy Ministry official, however, denies the ministry rejected any regulations. Isabel Cristina Araya, director of technical regulation, confirmed that the ministry’s duty is merely to watch over the process that leads to regulations’ publication and ensure it runs as established by Costa Rican law.“MINAE is the governing body in environmental topics, and they regulate the general topic of fuels,” she said. Araya explained that in order for the regulations to pass, all the ministries involved would need to sit down, evaluate the plan technically, not politically, and agree on a proposal.OFFICIALS from other government organizations have varying interpretations of who is responsible for effecting change regarding fuel contaminants.Gallegos said the Regulatory Authority’s most recent attempts included submitting letters to President Pacheco and Vice-President Lineth Saborío this year. When The Tico Times contacted Casa Presidencial for comments, spokeswoman Cindy Centeno said this matter has nothing to do with the President or Vice-President, but with the Environment Ministry.María Guzmán, director of MINAE’s Department of Environmental Quality, alleged in turn that it is not just the Environment Ministry that bears the responsibility of reducing contaminants in fuel, but also other institutions, such as the Health Ministry, RECOPE and the Economy Ministry. She added that Costa Rica has the strictest norms in Central America – though none of the other Central American countries have any standards establishing contaminant limits.THE Public Health Ministry appears to be the only ministry that has focused on the problem of contaminants this year, with their study showing pollution costs Costa Rica some $280 million a year in medical treatments, hospitalizations and loss of job productivity (TT, July 22).Environmental groups have also joined the struggle to set new fuel standards in the country.The Sala IV last week ruled in favor of an injunction request filed by the Association for the Preservation of Wild Flora and Fauna (APREFLOFAS) in December 2004 against President Pacheco and the Ministries of Finance, Health, Economy, the Environment, Public Works and Transport for lack of efficiency in reducing the impact of vehicle-generated pollution on health, according to APREFLOFAS President Luis Diego Marín.“Right now, we continue breathing in cancer,” he said, explaining that the Sala IV ruling will force the government to come up with solutions to this problem. FOR their part, the National Oil Refinery insists that Costa Rica already leads the way in terms of limiting contaminants in its fuel, and raising its standards would result in gas prices shooting up by 20-30%.“In Latin America we are one of the countries with the highest restrictions,” said William Ulate, RECOPE distribution manager.For international gas purchases, providers must comply with standards that call for a maximum amount of 45% aromatic hydrocarbons and 30% olephine components, Ulate said. However, no restrictions exist for benzene and there are no standards for quality for Costa Rica on a national level, meaning that domestic fuel purchases do not face the standards applied on the international level.According to Ulate, Costa Rica has already surpassed the goals established by the Kyoto Protocol, a multilateral agreement signed by more than 140 countries to curb global warming by reducing greenhouse emissions. It took effect in February (TT, Feb. 25).For example, while Costa Rica should have reduced the sulfur levels in diesel fuel to 0.35% by this year, the country already has them down to 0.20%, Ulate said, explaining that sulfur produces acid rain.According to Ulate, the standards ARESEP wants for Costa Rica are comparable only to those of European nations and the U.S. state of California, a world pioneer in the use of environmentally friendly fuels.“We do not oppose (the ARESEP norms), but (to establish them) we would need to run specialized studies just for Costa Rica. It would only be possible if the population were willing to pay for gas prices after they shoot up,” he said.HOWEVER, ARESEP engineer Gallegos said the standards her institution seeks are nowhere near California’s. With its proposed plan, ARESEP seeks a gradual establishment of regulations, starting with obtaining records from RECOPE noting the amount of benzene, aromatic hydrocarbons, and olephine components in fuel in 2005, according to Gallegos.By 2006, ARESEP would have established a maximum 1.5% benzene, 45% aromatic hydrocarbons, and 20% olephine components in fuel, she said. In California, the standard is a maximum 0.80% benzene, 22% aromatic hydrocarbons, and 4-10% olephine components, she explained.