Without noise or commotion, the United States Army rushes to authorize the multi-million dollar transformation of Camp Santiago in Salinas, a project with potential implications for nearby communities and the environment.
According to La Perla del Sur, the plan includes the construction of a new barracks complex ($ 112 million), a large maintenance hangar ($ 80 million), an airstrip for helicopters ($ 64 million) and an electrical substation ($ 18.5 million) : works that together with other improvements will require an injection of close to $ 395.5 million.
However, the lawyer and spokesperson for the Salinas Environmental Dialogue Committee, Ruth Santiago Quiñones, warned that the 15-day period established for comments on the project to be issued ended, without almost anyone in the area finding out.
In his opinion, because the plan has the potential to alter the tranquility in the communities near the base, aggravate the risk of flooding in the municipality and increase the extraction of drinking water from the Southern Aquifer.
“In Salinas no one has found out,” insisted the expert in environmental law.
According to the proposal submitted by the Puerto Rico National Guard, the project contemplates the demolition of 48 existing structures, some of them built with asbestos and covered with lead paint, among other toxic ones.
In its place, 48 new structures would be erected with capacity for 1.1 million square feet of space.
They find out “by chance”
Santiago Quiñones denounced that both the environmental organizations in the area and the residents in the communities near the base did not receive notification about the elaborate proposal and that the only disclosure effort occurred through a notice that was published on December 2 in the page 46 of a metropolitan newspaper.
Even so, the military high command granted 15 calendar days for interested parties to learn about the project and submit written comments.
This determination, the lawyer added, is foolish and abusive, since the 190-page military proposal was written in English and specialized language. In addition, he questioned why the document was only visible through a link provided in the ad and that it could not be downloaded.
“I found out by chance, because that day I was looking at the newspaper and I came across this,” he said. “Everything was done in a way with very little ease for the participation of the communities, and interested organizations and entities.”
Asked how long the evaluation of the comments presented could take, Santiago Quiñones stated: “I think it will be a couple of days. They seem to be in a hurry with this matter. “
“If they had wanted public participation, they would have put advertisements on radio and local newspapers, or put up a poster in front of Camp Santiago itself so that people would see it when it left the highway,” he said.
No Environmental Impact Statement
On the other hand, the lawyer denounced that the project is intended to be approved without the preparation of an in-depth study on the repercussions of the work on the Salinas ecosystem.
“Such a comprehensive project, with so many demolitions, construction of new facilities and so close to floodplain areas, requires at least an ‘Environmental Impact Statement’ to determine ‘significant adverse impacts’. Only in this way can it be decided if it proceeds and what the mitigation measures could be to lessen these impacts ”, he explained.
“What they did was a mere ‘Environmental Assessment’ and in a project of this magnitude an Environmental Impact Statement is required, which is a study that takes into consideration all these matters of ‘significant adverse impacts’. The document that was published does not reach that level ”, he continued.
Sadly, this seems to be becoming the norm. The disappearance of what we call environmental impact statements is remarkable, “he added.
Fears for more floods
In addition, the member of the Environmental Dialogue Committee raised questions about the impact that the project could have on the already susceptible flood zone of Salinas.
“There is no detailed study of the hydrology of the place, of how these waters move and how the flooding of the center of the town of Salinas is affected,” he said.
“The water displaced by the construction will be discharged into the Nigua River. That river, when it leaves Camp Santiago, enters directly into the town of Salinas. Then it goes on the way to the beach, where there are communities such as La Margarita urbanization and sectors such as Villa Esperanza and Villa Cofresí. The Nigua River floods the entire area, so putting more water on it for these constructions and extensions that they are proposing implies that more water will flow downstream ”, he added.
Likewise, Santiago Quiñones stressed that the proposed plan could significantly increase water withdrawals to the Southern Aquifer, a vital resource for the municipality, but beset by recurring droughts and excessive intakes.
“Nowhere do they mention the amount of water they are going to extract from the Southern Aquifer. They do say that they are going to work in underground wells, but they do not say how much (they are going to extract) or what their current demand is, nothing. It’s outrageous, “he added.
“We must be very vigilant in relation to what these constructions imply on our source of drinking water. The army must also provide more information on the issue of discharges and the flow of the Nigua River, as well as the implications for possible flooding downstream and even east of the camp ”, he stressed.
The National Guard responds
At closing time, the adjutant general of the National Guard, Major General José J. Reyes, defended the construction projects contemplated for the record of La Perla del Sur and assured that they do not represent additional damage to the environment.
“The construction projects in Camp Santiago are in substitution of existing facilities. There is no impact on natural areas. What was done was that where previously there were barracks facilities, they collapsed, they were collected and on the same site now modern buildings are going to be built. That doesn’t have an impact, ”Reyes insisted.
“The bed capacity from before is what is being rebuilt. At one point, Camp Santiago had a capacity of 3,600 beds, currently I have a capacity of 600 beds ”, he continued.
“It is not that we are increasing capacity, we are rebuilding a capacity that existed, that due to the atmospheric events Irma and María, destroyed our barracks, but we need to rebuild them,” he added.
Similarly, the military rejected that the National Guard is hiding information from the public.
“We comply with all the requirements and information and auction processes, as established by law,” he stated. “We always welcome all those groups that are interested and concerned.”
“We have already had meetings with the mayor of Salinas, she is aware of all these projects and has been a great ally. This will create thousands of jobs. We have also presented these construction projects to the governor-elect, because they are going to impact the economy, not only of Salinas, but of all of Puerto Rico, ”he concluded.
Even though the Issuu portal of the National Guard does not allow downloading the PRARNG Master Plan & Master Plan FONSI report, you can see it accessing here.