Agencies ordered to fix the Ruta 1856 environmental disaster

Felled trees and banches block this stream, and the bridge over the waterway clearly shows that it has been constructed with trees and given a thin coat of road material. Tribunal Ambiental Administrativo photos

The nation’s environmental enforcement agency has added another layer of errors and damage to the growing scandal that is Ruta 1856 along the Río San Juan.

The agency, the Tribunal Ambiental Administrativo, has given a handful of public agencies 10 days to come up with a plan to fix the many environmental problems that observers found during a tour of just 49 kilometers, less than half the route.

Experts and two judges from the Tribunal said they found evidence that there was extensive cutting of trees for the lumber. They also said that wetlands were damaged and that grading was in some places eight times as wide as the 10-meter highway.

This is one of the wetlands that has been affected by sedimentation and fill.

The project, which was done as an emergency, is the subject of criminal investigations, and every day brings news of some error that is affecting the route. For example, five bridges have collapsed, and transport officials have installed in one place a bailey bridge. Contractors used metal shipping containers in some places and covered them with wood to make bridges. Some of the wood was from protected species, said the Tribunal.

President Laura Chinchilla ordered the roadway to be installed as a response to the invasion of some of the country’s land by Nicaraguan troops. The highway was planned to provide as means of travel other than the adjacent river that is fully in Nicaraguan territory and under that country’s control.

Costa Rica is involved in a complex case in the International Court of Justice over the border dispute with Nicaragua. That country also has filed a case alleging that dirt from road construction has collapsed into and damaged the river. The Tribunal said it could find no evidence that this has happened.

The Tribunal considered the width of this clearing to be excessive for the size of the road.

The Tribunal order is against the Consejo Nacional de Vialidad, the Comisión Nacional de Emergencias, the Sistema Nacional de Áreas de Conservación and the water, geology and mines sections of the Ministerio de Ambiente y Energía.

The plan that is demanded is supposed to cover mitigation of the damages, repair and compensation. The Tribunal has the power to issue fines. The Tribunal also wants a list of dates when the various work that is promised will be done.

In addition, the Sistema Nacional de Áreas de Conservación was ordered to assemble a team of 20 forestry experts and biologists to assess the impact of the road on the environment.

The Tribunal also wants any wood that has been cut to be collected and protected so that the material cannot be sold. A report released Monday said that there were logs on the ground ready for the sawmill.

The environmental agency also seeks the Colegio Federado de Ingenieros y Arquitectos and the Laboratorio Nacional
de Materiales y Modelos Estructurales at the Universidad de Costa Rica to provide copies of reports on damage they have made.

The Tribunal is the agency that has halted private construction work on both coasts because of danger to waterways and some trees. It has never issued a report with so much obvious environmental damage. The report said that wetlands were affected by extraction of materials, the dumping of fill, blockages, diversions and sediment. Waterways also were diverted, blocked or otherwise tampered with. Some work encroached on private land or protected biological corridors, according to the report.

Specifically the Tribunal said that only in the first 49 kilometers, its experts found 10 wetlands damages and at least seven rivers or streams that also suffered damage. The new road is 160 kilometers or about 99 miles.

The tribunal expressed surprise that some much grading had been done for the highway. It said in some cases a swath 80 meters wide (a bit more than 260 feet) was graded for the 10-meter-wide (33-foot) road. To do the grading, the land was cleared of trees.

The report said that many of the trees cut were almendro or mountain almond. This is the same species that led to the closing of the La Crucita open pit gold mine near San Carlos because the tree is protected. These and many other trees were cut without permission, said the report.

The nation’s prosecutors are investigating a number of allegations involving the road, including the payment of bribes to inspectors from the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes and the issuing of contracts to companies with no experience in road building. The route was built as an emergency measure without competitive bidding.

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