Vega Alta residents sue over deforestation at Cerro Gordo
By John McPhaul
Vega Alta Mayor Oscar “Can” Santiago Martínez announced Thursday that citizens of the northern town filed a lawsuit on behalf of a citizen user of the public facilities at the Cerro Gordo Spa, which the municipality has joined, to request that the court stop the large-scale deforestation caused by a contractor paid by the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER) and Department of Recreation and Sports (DRD by its Spanish initials).
Although it had originally been established that the Mississippi company DebrisTech was to be contracted to collect debris after Hurricane Maria three years ago and to prune or fell about 14 trees, according to data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the company destroyed hundreds of trees, including palm trees and grape trees, in the area of the spa, without the DNER or DRD having duly supervised any such action. DebrisTech’s actions at the spa -- which is known islandwide as a camping destination and also boasts an internationally recognized mountain biking trail -- have been called an “environmental massacre” by neighbors of Cerro Gordo and visitors to the area.
In the lawsuit, led by attorney Pedro Ortiz Álvarez, the court is asked to immediately order the stoppage of the indiscriminate felling of vegetation and to start an orderly and complete reforestation of the area impacted and affected by the challenged actions of the defendants.
In deciding whether to issue an interim injunction or preliminary injunction, the court shall consider, among other factors, the following: (a) the nature of the damage to which the petitioning party is exposed; (b) the irreparability of the damage or the lack of an adequate remedy in law; (c) the probability that the promoting party will prevail; (d) the probability that the cause of action becomes academic; (e) the impact on the public interest of the remedy being requested; and (f) the diligence and good faith with which the petitioning party has acted.
“The damages suffered and those that are being suffered as a consequence of the actions of the defendant are irreparable because, painfully, it is no longer possible to return this area of great tourist and sports value to its original state,” Santiago Martínez said. “The trees that have been felled in the area were more than a decade old, as well as the vast majority of the trees and palms that still remain in the area, at the expense of the defendants approving and validating their logging under some assumptions [and/or] studies that no one has seen publicly.”
Ortiz Álvarez said in the document submitted to the court that “we must remember that the legal regulations on natural resources and the environment have an unavoidable constitutional dimension, as detailed in the case of Mission Industrial versus the Environmental Quality Board (JCA) 145 DPR 908, 918 of the year 1998.”
That case, which has had wide repercussions in the media due to its seriousness, is reminiscent of the widespread felling of trees carried out by the Department of Transportation and Public Works along the roads of Puerto Rico in 2019.
“Unlike the trees that are along the roads, in the case of the Balneario de Cerro Gordo all this vegetation does not represent danger or obstruct the passage of anyone; on the contrary, it is a very important part of this natural tourist and sports complex,” said the mayor, who has been asking the central government to transfer the Cerro Gordo Spa facilities to the municipality for its administration and tourism development since the beginning of the current four-year term, as has happened in municipalities such as Toa Baja, Guánica and Luquillo. “The Senate has already approved a resolution by Senator Rossana López León to that effect, but the House of Representatives stopped it without any explanation. I assure you that had the municipality had ownership of [those] areas, this environmental massacre would never have occurred.”