San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Environment Tribunal Powers Under Scrutiny

A new law making its way through the Legislative Assembly would reform several articles of the Ley Orgánico del Ambiente, the nation’s over-arching environmental law. The articles in question are the ones which created the country’s Environmental Tribunal, an administrative court within the Ministry of the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications (MINAET).

The proposed changes would grant substantial administrative and financial powers to the environmental court. For example, under the proposed legislation, judges could suspend environmental permits for developments that violate environmental laws from six months to up to three years.

The court currently has the ability to temporarily shut down projects that violate environmental codes and issue fines accordingly. In a recent case, the court suspended construction on the Caldera highway after the private contractor responsible for construction punctured the ceiling of a vital aquifer and compromised community drinking water supplies with construction debris (TT, Oct. 2).

The suspension lasted for two weeks, until the company presented to the court and to MINAET mitigation and cleaning plans designed to prevent rubble from entering streams and rivers and avert future aquifer ruptures.

The court is still tallying fines for the damage.

The company, like many private developers, was required to pay an environmental security deposit equal to one percent of the project’s total cost. Payments for violations will likely be taken from the deposit, but Environmental Tribunal President José Lino Chaves said he believes that financial penalties alone are not sufficient incentive to force some companies to work within the framework of environmental laws.

“What we have now is more of an immediate economic sanction,” Chaves said. “When a company wants to build, they understand we will fine them for what they damage. But, if they don’t care about the fines, they can continue to cause damage. If we are able to debilitate a project for a long period of time, we can send a message to developers that we will not tolerate improper practices.”

Chaves said that the three-year permit suspension would be reserved for serious cases such as extreme contamination to rivers and aquifers that could jeopardize a neighboring community’s health, or violation of forestry laws that prohibit logging.

Those who oppose the bill, however, say it could deliver a serious blow to the country’s construction sector.

In response to the bill’s first debate in the Planning Commission of the Legislative Assembly, the Costa Rica Chamber of Construction declared that the bill is “an impediment to development, infrastructure and other public works.”

Marvin Rojas, a Citizen Action Party (PAC) lawmaker, has kept a close eye on the Caldera highway project and lauded the Environmental Tribunal in halting its construction. He called the move “long overdue.”

But even Rojas is apprehensive about passing a bill that would grant such broad powers.

“I am a bit worried about this bill because it could grant resolution capabilities to the court that would be irreversible,” Rojas said. “It could cause problems with some companies and put distance between the state and construction firms. I think it is a proposal that we need to reconsider.”

The bill, presented by the nine legislators of the Environment Commission, received 18 of 19 votes during its first debate in the Planning Commission in early October. The bill was frozen, however,

when National Liberation Party legislator Federico Tinoco, a member of the commission, issued a motion to send the bill to the assembly floor for discussion by all 57 congressmen-and-women.

Several of Tinoco’s fellow party members on the Environment Commission questioned his motion but, after the October debate, Tinoco said the proposal could lead to abuse and would form an “environmental police” force rather than an environmental court.

Tinoco later revoked his motion and the bill passed to the second debate on Wednesday afternoon, where it endured heavy criticism.

Although all but Tinoco voted in favor of the bill without hesitation in the first round, many legislators in the commission presented motions to freeze the bill during Wednesday’s second debate.

“I don’t see political viability in approving this law,” said PAC legislator Leda Zamora.

José Merino, a legislator for the Broad Front Party, told informa-tico, a Costa Rican online news service, that campaigns launched by powerful sectors the Construction Industry Chamber proved worrying for many legislators. He noted that the bill might have to return to the first debate and the Environmental Tribunal will have to make changes to the proposal.

Chaves rejected criticism nothing that those who perform work correctly would have nothing to fear.

“If they don’t violate environmental legislation, they will have no problems,” he said. “It’s like drinking and driving. The transit law punishes drunk drivers, but those who drive sober have nothing to worry about.”

Under the legislative proposal, the Public Registry would also note when a property has been affected by a proceeding or decision of the Environmental Tribunal. It also seeks to grant the court administrative independence from MINAET.

Judges claim that the court’s dependence on the institution encumbers quick resolutions and swift responses to environmental damages.


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