Merger of environmental agencies not working, says union, public officials
By Richard Gutiérrez
The United Public Servants Union of Puerto Rico denounced Thursday before the House Government Committee that the consolidation of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) with the Environmental Quality Board (EQB), the Solid Waste Authority and the National Parks Program has not allowed an effective functioning of the agency.
The expressions of the president of Council 95, Jessica Martínez Santos, emerged at a public hearing to investigate compliance with the Reorganization Plan of the 2018 DRNA under House Resolution 751.
According to the union leader, the processes within the DNER continue to be bureaucratic and “slow”, while the agency is not complying with the responsibility conferred under Law 171-2018 that provides for the reorganization.
“Our natural resources do not have the protection they deserve and crimes against the environment are more common and routine.
The diverse nature of each agency in this grouping slows down decision-making and makes the timely implementation of specific policies and regulations,” Martinez Santos said during her presentation.
The spokeswoman said that Law 171 has not represented savings in public spending “nor has it guaranteed a more supervisory management for the benefit of our environment natural resources and national parks”, since she stressed that each agency has a different role to play despite having a common vision.
Likewise, Martínez Santos argued that the DNER does not have the man-power necessary to fulfill all the responsibilities they currently have as an agency.
“The DNER does not guarantee the health and safety of its workers. The DNER is an agency that is completely unfocused on its mission to protect and preserve the environment and natural resources,” she said.
Juan Babá Peebles, coordinator of federal facilities in the Assistant Secretary for Environmental Compliance said that his agency now has the functions of the former Environmental Quality Board. For the official, the reorganization has not fulfilled its objectives and could put at risk the funds received by the agency.
Among the long list of reasons, Baba Peebles stressed that the integration of both has “greatly increased” bureaucracy in administrative procedures, which has hindered appointments, purchases and contracts of units that before were the purview of the EQB..
According to the employee, the former EQB currently has a cooperative agreement with the Protection Agency Clean Water State Environmental Resolving Fund Program (EPA), which allocates money for sanitary and rainwater infrastructure; estuary studies; flood control, among other things.
The DNER, as the entity that absorbs the JCA, is in charge together with the Agency for Infrastructure Financing (AIF) to manage the allocated funds.
For this reason, the merger of the agencies disqualified the DRNA from benefiting from these funds because of potential conflicts of interest, Baba Peebles said.
Among those possible conflicts, he mentioned that the components of the EQB that grant permits are obliged to evaluate the permits requested by the DRNA; A process of review of decisions made or evaluation of waivers is in place, Through the Governing Board as was the case with the EQB; and the EQB regulates activities that the DNER performs by giving permissions to itself.
“While it is important to evaluate possible improvements in environmental management, unifying functions of the EQB and the DNER as a single agency have brought with them challenges and potential drawbacks that must be carefully considered,” he said.
Baba Peebles. “To fulfill its responsibilities effectively, the EQB must have autonomy.
For its part, the DNER delivered a presentation in which it detailed the pending projects to be completed, as well as the use of local and federal funds for the Implementation of programs.
Among them, the Federal Agency for the FEMA has 132 projects of which they have obligated 85% of the funds.
This obligation represents $111 million and some of the priority projects of this program are the pump houses, which already have signed contracts for design and mitigation in Baldorioty de Castro, Avenida De Diego, Parada 18, Cataño,
Guaynabo, Salinas and Juana Díaz.
Similarly, engineer Waldemar Quiles reported that among these projects are the Luis Muñoz Rivera Park, whose contract signing is coordinated for today, Oct. 13. Also included is the Mayagüez Zoo, where carrying out an alternate project with a “change in scope of work” will be requested formally by FEMA.
Under the ARPA-funded program, DNER has 12 projects with $17.6 million from the Total allocated fund of $30 million. Quiles highlighted a dozen projects that will be priorities for this program in the Assistant Secretariat of National Parks, as improvements to various spas around the island.
Representative Jesús Manuel Ortiz, president of the commission, stressed his concern with the issue of oversight of the DRNA and the lack of budget in the agency for five years after the implementation of the reorganization.
“Here’s legislation that was passed with a promise of supposed savings. that were going to be achieved with the merger of these agencies, and I believe that at the end of the road, we will have seen that reality and it is one of the main problems,” he said.
“It is an issue that must continue to be discussed to find alternatives. It is not a superficial topic. It’s a profound issue that impacts people’s lives in the way that this agency can function in the right way.”