The blasts that Pedregal does at its quarry in Nicoya forces residents living in Barrio Los Angeles out of their homes as they ask themselves where the boom that is shaking their windows has come from. After three decades, they aren’t used to this sound that never ceases to amaze them and that echoes for three kilometers.
One of the residents is Olga Chavarría. “It affects us a lot, and it gives the children asthma,” she says. “The blasts are strong and they alarm the population. We have sent letters to city hall and nothing has been done. It’s very difficult.”
The quarry can be seen from any point in Nicoya. It’s a giant, deforested mountain that splits into fragments and is losing its green color. Pedregal has been mining limestone for 27 years with a single environmental impact study (EIA) from 1992. The National Environmental Technical Secretariat has never requested an update despite the fact that requirements today for approving it would be very different.
These are the findings of a review by The Voice of Guanacaste in alliance with the journalism program Punto y Aparte of more than 1,600 pages of the Pedregal quarry records at the Department of Geology and Mines. The review included an exhaustive search for opinions of independent and government specialists.
The investigation shows that operating with a study that has fewer requirements than those of today is just one of the privileges of old licenses like the one Pedregal has. They are acquired rights that probably wouldn’t be affected even if legislation was updated since laws cannot be retroactive, according to Energy and Environment Minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguez.
If we were to give a license to a person today, we require a series of regulations that 30 years ago weren’t required and now we can’t request a series of new requirements of those who have an old license,” the minister said.
Pedregal hasn’t made any updates because Setena hasn’t requested them, according to the project’s manager, geologist William Brenes.
The analysis also shows that Pedregal has only paid ¢6 million ($9,700) annually in environmental guarantees, which is the money the state uses to “compensate” for environmental damage caused by the company. The amount has remained unchanged since 1997. If it were adjusted in colones in 2018 (taking annual inflation into consideration) it would be just over ¢29 million ($46,700).
“Currently, there is no way to execute the guarantee because it’s not regulated. Generally, that guarantee isn’t enough to repair damages in case damages occur,” said Setena’s secretary general Sergio Bermúdez.
Why Should Studies be Updated?
A lot of things have changed between 1992, when the quarry’s environmental impact study was approved, and 2018. Extraction technology, the ecosystem the quarry operates in, and even the country’s environmental objectives. The Department of Geology and Mines also has new requirements for granting extraction permits and Setena has new guidelines for approving studies.
According to Setena’s secretary general Sergio Bermudez, environmental evaluation instruments and forms have changed, as well as the minimum number of professionals who must sign the document.
In 1992, for example, a single geologist could conduct the entire investigation. Today, biologists, civil engineers, architects, sociologists, hydrologists and geologists must participate, according to environmental consultant Josué Arrieta. Today, sociologists would evaluate the impact a quarry like this would have on residents of Nicoya, like Olga Chavarría.
“Environmental conditions aren’t static. They change over time,” Arrieta said. “The environmental results of 20 years ago are very different.”
Legally, Setena can request an update when the extraction or operation that was authorized changes. The Department of Geology and Mines and Pedregal argue that the licensee has stayed within the limits of the 1992 study. But records analyzed by this newspaper show some changes in the way they operate.
For example, the environmental impact study states that the use of explosives would be “occasional” but the frequency has changed over time. A document from 1997 evidenced that Pedregal does two blasts, or explosions, per week, while a report from 2012 shows two daily blasts.
Mario Gómez, chief of mining control in the Department of Geology and Mines, said that the number of detonations doesn’t imply a change in the license because as the frequency of the blasts increased, their intensity decreased.
But what did change were the conditions for residents near the quarry, who heard the explosions more frequently without any kind of alert.
“Everyone looks down on this type of activity,” said Brenes of Pedregal. “Unfortunately, the blasts make noise. I wish they had a silencer, but they don’t.”
A Sea of Confusion
The Pedregal quarry swims in a sea of disagreements, confusion, and lost records. For example, Setena lost the records that should show the environmental updates the company has made. When we asked them about the document, they responded via email and said that, since it is so old, it had gone missing.
Additionally, the protocols the company must use when the perform blasts are not clear.
Mario Gómez from the Department of Geology and Mines insists that a siren should sound when the quarry is about to have an explosion in order to alert the population. But residents of Los Ángeles insisted that they have never heard that siren.
Never. They could do a blast right now and it would be the only thing we hear,” said Los Ángeles resident Elías Aiza. “We have absolutely never heard a siren.”
Pedregal alleges that the Department of Geology and Mines never instructed them to use alarms or to standardize the times they do blasts. They insist that if they had received such instructions, they would have appealed.
“We would have presented a motion to overturn it,” said William Brenes, director of geology for Pedregal.
For Minister Rodríguez, the impact the mine has is significant, but the material it produces is necessary.
“Mining is one of the activities that has the greatest environmental impact,” he said. “You select the land and the forest and you remove all vegetation and you start to dig a hole. That has a very large impact. But without that material we wouldn’t have buildings, houses, highways or bridges. So we need this activity to be regulated with the best environmental regulations.”
Former Setena secretary, geologist, and environmentalist Allan Astorga, agrees. “They don’t have to stop operating, but it does need to be updated,” he said. “They can’t use such an old EIA with requirements that differ so much from today’s requirements.
Former minister of the environment Édgar Gutiérrez agreed. “Environmental impact studies must be updated every 10 years,” he said. “I’m not going to have the same impact at the start as I will when the activity is developed.”