EL CAIRO, Limón The spring that supplies water to this small community, in the sultry, lowland jungles and farmland of the Caribbean slope west of Limón, is hidden in a dark, shaded forest on the edge of town.
The air is cool, moist and smells of earth. Moss covers the floor; vines drop from tree branches like dark curtains.
It is as quiet as a church and seems almost as sacred, but step outside the chain-link fence that surrounds this reserve, and pineapple plantations spread like a prickly green carpet as far as the eye can see.
The forest does nothing to protect us now. Chemicals they use have seeped through the soil and are poisoning our water, explained Gerardo Fernández, secretary of the town s recently formed Pro-Healthy Water Commission.
It is something he said citizens have long suspected since local children became sick swimming in the nearby rivers and streams years ago.
When we were young, we used to bathe and drink from the rivers. Now, nobody swims there, Fernández said on a recent tour of the region.
But Fernández, of El Cairo, said the town s fears became reality last month.
A three-year National University (UNA) study revealed that 18 of 107 samples taken from local wells and aquifers were contaminated with Bromacil, a chemical herbicide used to suppress weeds around growing pineapples.
The studies found levels between 0.5 and 20 milligrams per liter (mg/L), a result, according to scientists, of spraying at pineapple plantations near water sources as close as 20 meters in some cases.
Environmental regulations stipulate a 200-meter minimum distance for chemical use.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Lifetime Exposure Health Advisory Level the maximum level that a human could consume daily for 70 years without adverse effects is 90 mg/L, a level far higher than any samples taken during the university study, or any time thereafter.
Despite the relatively low levels, Health Minister María Luisa Avila took a cautious approach and together with the National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA), has insisted potable water be delivered by truck to the community until further tests are complete.
Thus far 6,000 people in six area communities, including El Cairo, have been affected.
The decision to stop the consumption of water from these aquifers was intended to calm the fears of the local people, she said. It may have done just the opposite.
According to Fernández, the combined effect of the daily water deliveries and a genuine fear of the unknown has unnerved this community of potholed roads and humble, brightly colored houses.
We re used to bathing, and drinking and washing our dishes in this water. Imagine how your life might change if suddenly, you were told you couldn t do these things? We don t know what we can or can t do. No one is telling us, he said.
The situation presents a perplexing dilemma for the people here,many of whom depend on the local banana and pineapple industries for employment.
Carlos Arguedas, a local environmentalist and member of the commission, has copies of the lab reports, but like most, he doesn t fully understand what they mean.
In a meeting in the town s one-room office, he holds up papers he d printed from an Internet site, www.museodevietnam. com.
Despite the unofficial source, he waves them like a battle flag.
These chemicals have caused cancer in troops from Vietnam, he said. But he doesn t rely solely on Internet printouts for his information.
Yes, we ve seen the EPA standards, he said. We understand that we might not be getting a mortal dose, but why is this chemical in our water to begin with? And what about the long-term effects?
Fernández also insists that the town s gripe isn t with the quantity of contamination, but rather, the fact that it exists at all.
We don t want any contamination here, he said.
Alexander Bolaños, general manager of Hacienda Ojo de Agua, the pineapple plantation fingered for the pollution, says it s much ado about nothing.
This week, the company received the coveted Bandera Ecológica certification from the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE), which requires that a company establish ecofriendly practices, reduce its use of pesticides and promote a safe working environment.
He points to the Health Ministry, not the people of the town, for the spread of misinformation about the situation and his business.
Never, at any point, have the people of El Cairo been subjected to dangerous levels of agro-chemicals. It is simply not an issue, he said, spreading out a half-dozen studies, including the most recent, conducted by ChemLabs, an accredited laboratory in San José.
They all show levels far below international standards, he said, opening up a binder rife with statistics and graphs.
Anybody who looks over this material would immediately see that.
Bolaños said the company stopped using Bromacil and other herbicides near the water sources almost two years ago.
He believes the Health Ministry has stalled in announcing its mistake to save face.
It s just not a good political play to say, No, don t drink the water, then come back just a few weeks later and admit you were wrong, he said.
In his air-conditioned office just a few kilometers from El Cairo, there are framed posters that boast of the company s commitment to ecofriendly practices.
Bolaños believes Ojo de Agua s reputation has been wrongly jeopardized by the Health Ministry s unfair and unfounded attacks.
Banks have called, he said, wondering if the company might go under, and clients as far away as Europe caught wind of the recent events.
He insists the greatest tragedy is the money the government is spending supplying water by truck to six different towns, estimated by officials at almost $29,000 between now and December.
These are needy communities. This money could be much better spent elsewhere, in roads, infrastructure, education, he said.
The government entities involved the National Water and Sewer Insitute and the Health Ministry insist that the caution was warranted.
According to Darner Mora, director of the country s water-testing laboratory at the National Water and Sewer Institute, consumption will remain off-limits until further test results, expected next week, come through.
Our guiding principle here is that no water supply in the country should contain even a trace amount of these chemicals. We want to be ahead of this game, not caught behind, he said.
According to Mora, the institute will install a carbon filter in the pumping system that will ensure such chemicals don t enter the supply.
It s also due within the next month, he said.
Bolaños, for his part, says it s all a show.
They become the good guys, and we remain the bad guys, he said.
And the townspeople remain hopelessly on the sidelines.
We’ ve yet to get a meeting with anyone, rom either the company, or the government, environmentalist Fernández said.