Puerto Rico’s non-”Green Way”

May 24, 2011

Rossana Rodriguez reports on the strakes in a struggle against a planned natural gas pipeline that threatens the environment and working-class communities.

DESPITE A heavy rain and armed with nothing but umbrellas, 30,000 people came out on May Day for a people's assembly to express to the government of Puerto Rico their opposition to the construction of a natural gas pipeline.

The assembly, called by the three-decade-old environmentalist organization Casa Pueblo de Adjuntas, protested a gas pipeline ("gasoducto" in Spanish) project that the government has cynically called Via Verde (Green Way). According to polls, more than 80 percent of people in Puerto Rico oppose the project, and opposition is being led by an array of unions and environmental, political, community and religious organizations, which were represented at the assembly.

Along its planned 92-mile course, the pipeline would run near 235 bodies of water and through miles of wetlands. It would level thousands of acres of forest, endanger archaeological and historical sites, and disrupt the habitats of at least 34 species protected by federal law. Two-thirds of the route runs through the special conservation zone of "El Karso," the source of 25 percent of Puerto Rico's water.

Tens of thousands of people gathered on May Day to protest plans for the natural gas pipeline in Puerto Rico
Tens of thousands of people gathered on May Day to protest plans for the natural gas pipeline in Puerto Rico

Opponents of the pipeline say that thousands of people in 51 communities would have to be evicted during construction, and the lives of more than 200,000 people in residential and recreational areas would be put at risk from explosions or environmental contamination.

For these and many other reasons, the May Day assembly approved a manifesto, which reads in part:

We the people, assuming our responsibility and commitment with Puerto Rico, on the grounds of democratic participation to protect the waters, the forests and the people, and mobilizing from the streets for the good of the country, express in this Manifesto...that we are opposed to the Via Verde project.

RESIDENTS OF Puerto Rico aren't the only ones with doubts. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have both recommended against the construction of the pipeline.

But the power to authorize the project lies with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). According to pipeline opponents, the Puerto Rico office of the USACE has been studying plans for the pipeline for more than six months and was close to making a decision when Col. Alfred Pantano, head of the Jacksonville, Fla., office of the USACE, ordered the removal of documents from the Puerto Rico office, revoking its jurisdiction over the issue.

According to a May 12 press release from Casa Pueblo:

The document transfer was proceeded by pronouncements made in a visit to Puerto Rico by Col. Pantano to the effect that the gas pipeline project did not represent a greater danger than the construction of a building--signaling that the USACE would be getting ready to grant permission for the pipeline construction in the next few months.

Dr. Arturo Massol-Deyá, a spokesperson for the Scientific and Technical Commission of Casa Pueblo, said Pantano's statements "indicate the prejudices of a politically oriented analysis, and lack scientific and technical substance, typical of someone under the influence of private consultants, and distant from the counsel of his field staff." Massol-Deyá added: "The lack of scientific rigor in Pantano's comments. The effects of constructing a building are local, precise and can be mitigated. Buildings don't explode, and they don't harm the course of rivers."

SUPPORTERS OF the pipeline claim these risks to people's lives and the environment, plus the cost of $450 million, are worth it because it will bring down the cost of electricity. But opponents say scientific studies show the savings will be only 1 cent per kilowatt hour--a small fraction of the current 21 cents per kilowatt hour that electricity costs in Puerto Rico.

The proposal is also raised accusations of corruption. The biggest contract for construction was given to Ray González Chacón, a childhood friend of Gov. Luis Fortuño--and Chacón's engineering firm has no pipeline experience.

But the government of Puerto Rico isn't the only one with shady business dealings regarding the Via Verde project.

U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez has called on Secretary of the Army John McHugh to investigate the ties of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to a Florida-based construction company called BCPeabody, which is acting as a consultant to the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) in trying to win USACE approval for the pipeline. Gutierrez points out that that Larry Evans, a former chief of regulations for the USACE, is now in charge of the gasoducto project at BCPeabody, and that USACE personnel he used to supervise will make the decision on authorization. According to Gutierrez's letter to McHugh:

Recent news articles suggest that BCPeabody consultants remain intimately involved in the permit evaluation process. This is a direct contradiction of earlier statements made by PREPA, which denied in the press that BCPeabody is under contract with it on the pipeline project. I have documents that show not only BCPeabody's extensive involvement, but that BCPeabody has been formally designated by PREPA to represent it in any matter regarding the Joint Permit Application for the Via Verde project.

The battle over the pipeline is a lesson in who has power and who doesn't. Poor and working-class communities that would be affected by the Via Verde project have been trying to and present their objections to PREPA, with no success at all. But according to pipeline opponents, there is evidence that three different powerful developers on the island were able to get the government to change the route of the gasoducto because it interfered with their residential or commercial interests.

On May Day, the 30,000 people at the assembly gave a clear message to the government that they will resist the gasoducto. The people of Puerto Rico are ready to struggle. This is not just a fight against the government, abut against the rich and powerful and their greed.

Following the legacy of the struggle for Vieques that forced the U.S. Navy to stop destroying the island off Puerto Rico's coast, opponents of the pipeline project are calling for a national and international civil disobedience campaign.

Anger at the project is growing. This fight will not be won in court, but in the struggle of the people who are willing to defend their homes, the environment and their lives by any means necessary.

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