Puerto Rico Resort Fined for Dumping Sewage Into Sea

By Cat Lazaroff

GUÁNICA, Puerto Rico, December 29, 2000 (ENS) - The owner of the Copamarina Beach Resort in Guánica, Puerto Rico, and one of the corporations that operated the hotel, have pled guilty to felony violations of the Clean Water Act for discharging sewage into the Caribbean Sea.

For at least eight years, the hotel discharged raw domestic sewage into the Caribbean Sea at Caña Gorda Beach through a pipe that stretched from the hotel's wastewater treatment plant directly into the sea.

Copamarina

The Copamarina Beach Resort sent raw sewage into the Caribbean Sea for at least eight years until it installed a new treatment system in 1997 (Two photos courtesy Copamarina Beach Resort)
Arnold Benus, the president and majority shareholder of the Concho Coporation, one of the corporations that operated the Copamarina Beach Resort, pled guilty to a felony count of knowingly discharging domestic sewage into the Caribbean Sea without a permit. Concho Corporation pled guilty to three similar felony counts.

Under the terms of a plea agreement reached between the defendants and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Benus faces a sentence of three years probation with six months home detention and a fine of $130,000.

Concho Corporation faces a sentence of three years probation and a total fine of $300,000. Sentencing is scheduled for April 2, 2001.

"Upon discovery of their conduct by the EPA, the defendants faced civil action to bring their discharges to an immediate halt and were required to pay a civil penalty for their pollution," said Lois Schiffer, assistant attorney general at the Justice Department's environment and natural resources division. "Further investigation uncovered that the discharges were knowing and that the defendants had received prior warning about the illegal nature of their conduct."

puerto rico

Guánica lies on the southern coast Puerto Rico - this view from space shows the island's western half (Photo courtesy National Aeronautic and Space Administration)
"This prosecution should send a strong message that whoever knowingly pollutes Puerto Rico's beautiful waters may face both civil and criminal penalties for their conduct," Schiffer concluded.

The resort is located near the Guánica Dry Forest, a unique subtropical forest that has been designated an international biosphere reserve by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

A few miles west of Guánica is the Phosphorescent Bay, a renowned shallow bay inhabited by bioluminescent organisms that light the water when disturbed by movement. Spectacular coral reefs lie just offshore of Guánica and the Copamarina Beach Resort.

The Clean Water Act, which regulates the discharge of pollutants into U.S. waters, was enacted to protect the chemical, physiological and biological integrity of those waters. Permits are issued to regulate permissible amounts of pollutants, and the discharge of any pollutant without a permit is illegal under the Act.

dry forest

The Guánica Dry Forest is the best preserved subtropical forest in the world (Photo courtesy Copamarina Beach Resort)
The Copamarina Beach Resort had been operating its wastewater treatment plant with a direct discharge into the Caña Gorda Beach area since at least April of 1992. On several occasions between 1993 and 1996, the Environmental Quality Board of Puerto Rico (EQB) inspected the plant and found that it was discharging directly into the sea without required permits.

The EQB notified Benus and the Concho Corporation about these violations, and requested that they stop the discharges. The defendants reportedly considered changing the wastewater treatment system to a "zero discharge" system.

However, while looking into a newer system, the defendants did not upgrade the system or halt the discharges, and they did not apply for required permits.

In August 1997, federal agents from the EPA observed that the Copamarina Beach Resort was still discharging domestic sewage directly into the sea. Samples of the discharges were found to contain high levels of fecal coliform bacteria.

A criminal search warrant was executed on August 21, 1997. Dye testing of the wastewater treatment system confirmed that the hotel was sending its sewage into the ocean.

fish

Some of the Caribbean's finest coral reefs lie off the coast from Guánica (Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)
EPA filed a civil suit against the resort and its operators immediately after the dye testing, and in September 1997, the resort finally stopped the discharges and began using a new zero discharge system.

In October 2000, a consent decree was filed to settle charges against Bemus, Concho Corporation, resort general manager Salvador Suau and the Sapo Corporation, which manages the Copamarina Beach Resort.

Under the agreement, the defendants will pay a civil penalty of $200,000 to the U.S. and will be permanently barred from discharging any pollutants from any sources at the Copamarina Beach Resort, unless the required Clean Water Act permits are obtained.