A reawakened political corruption scandal and a 15-year-old fiasco surrounding attempts to close a massive, putrid dump in the eastern Central Valley are stinking up Costa Rica’s attempts to take care of its trash.
In a country that banks off its international image as being environment-friendly, management of some of the biggest landfill projects remain shrouded in controversy and promise to get even more political as the Dec. 3 municipal elections loom.
Nearly half the 4,000 metric tons of waste the country’s inhabitants produce daily goes to 50 open-air dumps, all of which are under Public Health Ministry orders to close (TT, Nov. 3), and the rest is split between five landfills.
New allegations have surfaced in a scandal surrounding landfill management firm Berthier EBI de Costa Rica’s alleged illegal payments to the mayors of San José, where it operates a landfill in La Carpio, and Aserrí, in the mountains south of San José where it is planning to open another landfill.
This week, the Public Health Ministry scrambled to lay out plans to close Río Azul, a massive dump that authorities are trying to properly treat, in Cartago, east of San José, after a recent ruling by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) effectively cancelled plans once again to shut down the site.
The ongoing EBI scandal and notorious Río Azul landfill saga, in which EBI’s president is involved, prompted Alexis Cervantes, administrator of Río Azul, to declare Central Valley’s trash problem a “political mess.”
San José Mayor Johnny Araya and Aserrí Mayor Mario Morales have a few things in common.
Not only are both Central Valley incumbents running for re-election next month, both are implicated in a corruption scandal surrounding EBI’s alleged illegal payments to municipal leaders.
New allegations against Morales have revived the EBI corruption scandal. Last year, the Legislative Assembly launched an investigation into allegations that San José Mayor Araya had accepted kickbacks in exchange for awarding EBI its multimilliondollar contract to build and manage the La Carpio landfill (TT, July 22, 2005).
Under oath during a congressional hearing last year, Araya denied receiving any kickbacks. During the hearing, he presented lawmakers with a legal declaration he said was from Normande Heroux, the EBI financial manager whose signature was on a payment record that sparked the corruption scandal following a report about it published in the daily La Nación last year.
The alleged payment record shows approximately $65,000 being paid to Araya, and another nearly $50,000 split among others, municipal officials included. The declaration Araya presented to Congress was Heroux’s denial that she signed the document.
The Tico Times recently obtained the results of a Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) investigation from a source with legal access to the documents because of his involvement in a related case. In the report, the investigators confirm Heroux’s signature on the payment report matches more than three dozen of her signatures.
Araya told The Tico Times yesterday that evidence has been submitted to authorities that proves the payment report document itself is false.
“The signature can be legitimate, but not the document. There are studies that prove it’s not authentic,” he said, declining to provide The Tico Times with such documents for legal reasons.
The case is still under investigation by the OIJ.
Also this week, Citizen Action Party (PAC) legislator Leda Zamora sent Araya a letter asking him to appear again at the Legislative Assembly for further questioning in connection with the allegations.
Judicial Branch spokesman Fabián Barrantes said state prosecutors have requested the help of Canadian authorities in the ongoing criminal investigation.
Last year’s congressional investigation fizzled when Araya’s lawyer requested an injunction from the Sala IV, and a former EBI consultant and commissioner refused to testify (TT, Dec. 23, 2005).
New allegations involving EBI surfaced recently when the Comptroller General’s Office filed a complaint against Aserrí Mayor Morales for having received an allegedly illegal loan from the company.
To begin construction on its planned new landfill in Aserrí and have it open by next May as planned, EBI will need construction permits from the municipality of which Morales is mayor. It has already received the thumbs up it requires from the Environment Ministry’s Technical Secretariat (SETENA). (SETENA’s newly appointed Secretary General is Araya’s former sister-in-law. Araya said they have “very good relations.”)
The Comptroller’s office has filed a complaint against the Aserrí mayor related to a $45,000 loan he received from an EBI executive who has since resigned, according to Hamnia Pérez, investigator at the Comptroller’s Office.
Morales told The Tico Times he received the loan from former EBI Manager Juan Carlos Obando in 2005 to help him buy back his home after it had gone to auction because of Morales’ unpaid debt.He and EBI spokesman Guillermo López concurred the loan was not from the company, but a personal loan from Obando.
Pérez declined to give more details or provide The Tico Times with a copy of the complaint filed against Morales in the EBI scandal, citing the Comptroller’s policy of protecting information in cases in which public officials are accused of corruption.
Still Someone’s Problem
As dump trucks and front-end-loaders kicked up refuse in the Río Azul dump, Pedro Bolaños and dozens of coworkers disregarded the potent smell of rot as they dug through mounds of rancid trash, in clothes they picked out of the same piles.
“It’s important to take care of the trash, but the government doesn’t realize it because it’s busy stealing,” said Bolaños, a 31-year-old who has made a living from picking recyclable material out of the trash in Río Azul since he was 13.
Though Río Azul was slated to close down last weekend, Sala IV decided last Friday that it isn’t ready to be closed.
Though the court hasn’t released details of its decision, it passed the Health Ministry the buck to decide when the dump can be properly shut down, marking the latest political move in an ongoing saga to try to close Río Azul (TT, June 12, 2003; July 15, 2005) Behind the latest push to close Río Azul is the current EBI president Juan Vicente Durán, according to Mario Monge, director of the San Antonio High School near Río Azul. Monge said about four years ago, Durán came to his school circulating petitions for students to sign in support of closing the dump.
Monge said there has long been support in the community to close Río Azul because of the constant flow of dump trucks and traffic through neighborhood streets. That support has dwindled somewhat in recent years because authorities have made large strides in cleaning up what was once a dump notorious for health dangers to the surrounding community.
However, he said he and others later “felt manipulated” when they found out Durán had become the president of EBI, the company set to benefit from Río Azul’s closure.
The petition was submitted to Sala IV, and was cause for the courts’ decision to close the dump – until last week’s ruling.
“We feel they cheated us; it wasn’t in good faith. We don’t want to be involved in any economic interests,” he said.
EBI spokesman López confirmed that Durán helped collect signatures for the dump’s closure, but said it was as an area resident and that when he collected the signatures, he had no connections to EBI.
Downhill from Bolaños, at Cervantes’ office on the bottom of the Río Azul dump, the wind carries the stench of decomposition from above. Cervantes, head of the Regional Federation of Municipalities (FEDEMUR), which oversees the 33-yearold, 7-million-ton Río Azul, is trying to coordinate the first technical closing of a garbage dump in Costa Rica.
For the past 15 years, several efforts to close Río Azul have failed, in part because of the lack of viable alternatives to send trash elsewhere.
Edgar García, an aide to the Health Minister, said the ministry’s engineers are doing studies to set a new closure date for Río Azul. A recent Comptroller’s Office study estimated the dump wouldn’t be able to safely close until 2008.
By then, EBI hopes to have its Aserrí landfill open for business to take an estimated 700 tons of trash per day from Central Valley municipalities at $11 per ton.