6 orgs. sue gov’t for approving industrial energy projects on sensitive lands
Six organizations sued the Puerto Rico government over its approval of industrial renewable energy projects to be built on land of high agricultural value and ecologically sensitive areas, in violation of the Puerto Rico Land Use Plan and public policy laws regulating energy, agriculture, the environment and climate change.
In the mandamus petition filed in San Juan Superior Court, the organizations sought to prevent the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau, the Puerto Rico Planning Board (JP, in Spanish), the Puerto Rico Permits & Endorsements Management Office (OGPe, in Spanish), the Department of Economic Development and Commerce (DDEC, in Spanish), and the commonwealth government from authorizing industrial energy projects in agricultural reserves. Instead, they advocate for the use of previously contaminated land, impacted areas or rooftops.
They maintain that public policy laws specifically designate appropriate sites for renewable energy projects as disused landfills, contaminated lands, parking lots and roofs.
Yet, the PREB sanctioned an initial 18 projects that span 5,097.85 acres of land categorized as Special Agricultural Reserve and Specially Protected Rustic Land. According to the Puerto Rico Land Use Plan, these areas warrant protection.
The groups caution that “the consideration of probably more than 80 renewable energy industrial projects remains, without first identifying the location and suitable places,” as required by the Energy Public Policy Act and the Energy Transformation and Relief Act.
“Despite the clear text of the aforementioned laws, the PREB has approved power purchase contracts for 18 renewable energy industrial projects that are intended to be located illegally in the Special Agricultural Reserve, and will be considering some 80 additional industrial projects without first identifying the suitable locations in accordance with the law, without considering the location, without considering the conclusions that the DDEC must submit and without excluding the Special Agricultural Reserve lands,” the lawsuit states.
Involved in the lawsuit are Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Eco-Orgánica Inc., Frente Unido Pro-Defensa del Valle de Lajas Inc., Comité Diálogo Ambiental Inc., Puente de Williamsburg Inc. (Enlace Latino de Cambio Climático), Sierra Club Puerto Rico, and Liga de Ciudades de Puerto Rico Inc. Earthjustice and the Resiliency Law Center are providing them legal aid.
Lack of government transparency
The plaintiff organizations denounced the PREB’s lack of transparency, alleging that the bureau conducted a separate, confidential process to implement the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) without disclosing the names of the projects, addresses, location, magnitude, size of the areas, person or entity in charge, nor megawatts to generate.
“All this information is public, but we had to go to the Court before and we managed to get an order to hand over the information on the 18 projects,” said Alfredo Vivoni, of the United Front for the Defense of the Valley of Lajas Inc.
“There we discovered that everyone was breaking the law because they affect land that must be protected,” Vivoni added.
Meanwhile, attorney Omar Saadé Yordán pointed out that the PREB and the agencies did not respond to the organizations’ requests to comply with their duty to identify suitable locations for industrial renewable energy projects that comply with the Land Use Plan and establish a process that guarantees the protection of agricultural land and other ecological, water and scenic resources defined in the plan.
“The loss of prime agricultural land to install industrial-scale solar projects is a serious attack on Puerto Rico’s food security, which is already precarious,” said David Sotomayor, a soils professor at the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayagüez Campus (known as RUM) College of Agricultural Sciences.
“It must be emphasized that almost no product can be planted productively under the panels and the installation entails destruction of these soils with the construction activity, even changing the hydrography,” he said, adding that over 70 years, or between 1935 and 2002, the island lost around 1.3 million acres of agricultural land due to several factors, primarily due to urban expansion, according to data from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Geography of the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras.
“These are lands that we will not recover, and it becomes essential on an island like ours, which depends almost exclusively on imported products to be able to feed ourselves, that more land is not lost because food security is threatened, particularly in moments of crisis due to climate change and international market” upheavals, Sotomayor warned.
Similarly, Marissa Reyes, spokeswoman for Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Eco-Orgánica Inc., said: “We favor renewable energy, but not to the detriment of land of high ecological value and agricultural reserves in the largest productive areas.”
“Despite the clear letter of Act 17-2019 (Puerto Rico Public Energy Policy Act) and Act 57-2014 (Puerto Rico Energy Transformation and Relief Act), the PREB has breached its ministerial duty because it evaluates and approves the industrial (energy) projects of the IPR Request for Proposals without previously identifying the suitable places, without requiring assistance from the DDEC and without requiring the DDEC to submit its conclusions identifying the suitable places in accordance with Act 17-2019,” the lawsuit reads. “Likewise, the DDEC breaches its ministerial duty by not attending or submitting its conclusions to the Bureau identifying the suitable places, in accordance with Act 17-2019 and Act 57-2014.”