Citizens, pols demand DNER chief’s resignation
Call for greater action on island’s environmental issues
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
Activists, residents, and political leaders demonstrated Wednesday at the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) in San Juan to demand that Secretary Rafael Machargo Maldonado resign and to urge the government to take action in addressing Puerto Rico’s environmental issues responsibly.
Juan Camacho, a spokesperson for the community organization Toabajeños in Defense of the Environment, said around 140 organizations joined forces “to give an ultimatum to this umbrella agency that goes backward every day and does not represent Puerto Rico’s best interests when it comes to natural resource preservation.”
Currently, the DNER has under its administrative helm other entities such as the Solid Waste Administration, National Parks Program and Environmental Quality Board.
“We understand that this umbrella agency has been a fiasco because these agencies were inoperative before the government fused them in this dumpster of a building,” Camacho said while pointing at the DNER office, whose forefront was clearly in need of maintenance.
“The way the building looks is the same way the agency performs -- they were not doing their job before the consolidation, and they are not doing it after,” Camacho added. “We want to solve this problem. Environmental issues can turn to constitutional issues, and the government must develop an agency that defends [rights] in this matter; however, that is not what we are seeing.”
He said environmental organizations have requested meetings with Machargo, but to no avail. Camacho said the DNER chief has been “incorrigible.”
“Even with the comrades fighting against the toxic coal ash problem in Peñuelas, who urged him to meet with them, he ignored the concerns raised at that moment and what has happened after,” Camacho said.
In response to questions from the STAR, Camacho said “the only solution to this problem is for the government to put existing environmental public policies into action.”
“We are not asking them to do something differently, we don’t have to invent the wheel here, the wheel is there already,” he said. “You can’t have laws and rules in favor of the environment when you have incompetent officers who have other commitments tied to corruption and a neoliberal vision.”
“For them, a beach is a place to build a hotel; for us, it is not that,” he added.
Meanwhile, Citizens Victory Movement (CVM) Rep. Mariana Nogales Molinelli insisted that Machargo must resign from the DNER.
“Whenever there were public hearings on different affairs involving the DNER, the officers Machargo assigned to attend to these hearings did not know what to answer and never had the requested information; even Machargo himself said he did not have information available [when questioned],” she said. “What we see here is that we have an agency with no chief, which has repercussions with what’s happening on the island’s coasts, in karst zones, and in other spaces where we see a large amount of deforestation happening.”
Nogales Molinelli said the CVM is currently investigating Idelfonso Ruiz, who she said is now directing the Environmental Division at the Permit Management Office (OGPe by its Spanish acronym) after working at the DNER under Machargo’s supervision.
“This involves the specific case of the Sol y Playa Condominium [in Rincón], about which it has come to light in the media that there is a conflict of interest with the environmental consultant of that condominium since they have a joint venture company,” she said. “What we saw is that he [Ruiz] participated in the permit at DNER to build the pool, and then, in the evaluation of the permit at OGPe.”
“He should have [recused himself from] such evaluations, moreso if this involved a friend of his,” Nogales Molinelli added. “DNER is not complying with their duties, and OGPe and the Planning Board are handing over permits like crazy through the ‘categorical exclusion’ option, which is supposed to be an exception, but has become a norm, unfortunately.”
The CVM lawmaker said further that the DNER umbrella, along with the Department of Public Safety umbrella, must be dissolved to allow the other branches to keep oversight of the agency and perform their respective duties.
Puerto Rican Independence Party Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago said she was grateful that environmental organizations came together “to stand in a single struggle.”
She said it was time for the Legislature to pass bills that redefined the maritime-terrestrial zone “to protect lives and our natural surroundings” and establish a moratorium on construction in coastal areas.
“We are fighting for the integrity of our territory and against those who want to take what is ours,” the veteran lawmaker said. “And what they can’t take away from us, they want to destroy it, and we must stop it.”
The STAR requested a comment from the DNER on the protest; however, at press time no response had been received from the agency.