Governor Unveiled Plan to Address Coastal Erosion that Snubs Committee of Experts and Advisors on Climate Change

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Puerto Rico agency heads and representatives of the federal government met last Wednesday, September 2 at the Convention Center.

Photo provided by La Fortaleza

The announcement the Government of Puerto Rico made this week about the action plan to address the impact of coastal erosion snubbed the legally mandated role that members of the Committee of Experts and Advisors on Climate Change have to handle this matter that affects the island’s coastal towns. Aside from not having any scientific member of that Committee present during   the announcement, they weren’t either   consulted about the plan presented, the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) confirmed.

On September 2, La Fortaleza announced that a working group met that day to prepare an action plan to address coastal erosion. The meeting, which included agency heads from Puerto Rico and representatives of the federal government, was held at the Miramar Convention Center.

The CPI contacted five of the nine members of the Committee of Experts and Advisors on Climate Change, and although they confirmed having received an invitation to the meeting, at least four of the six scientific members said they did not know what the action plan announced is about and they expressed concern that the government will not enforce Act 33, which took effect on July 1, 2019.

According to Act No. 33 of 2019, coastal erosion must be given priority when drafting the Climate Change Mitigation, Adaptation and Resilience Plan that the Committee must present for the approval of the Legislative Assembly and the Governor’s signature.

“We were notified of the meeting two days in advance. My schedule runs on two weeks. I have two projects with NASA, I have projects with NSF and my schedule runs every two weeks. Notifying me two days in advance is not enough,” Pablo Méndez Lázaro, one of the Committee members, told the CPI.

“That [the meeting at the Convention Center] is a big, powerful and important event. Notifying on such short notice, already shows me that it’s a bit disorganized,” added the professor and researcher at the of the University of Puerto Rico’s (UPR) Medical Sciences Campus, who, like the others the CPI contacted, spoke in his personal capacity and not on behalf of the Committee.

In addition to Méndez Lázaro, the Committee is made up of five other scientists, including: Meteorologist and weather news anchor, Ada Monzón; Climatologist and college Professor, Rafael Méndez Tejeda; Geologist and college Professor, Maritza Barreto Orta; Engineer and former Director for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Caribbean District, Carl Soderberg; and, energy expert and member of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Roy Charles Carter Torbert. Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced appointed these six people in September 2019.

In addition to the six scientists, the group is rounded out by three ex officio members, namely, the president of the UPR, the secretary of the Department of Economic Development and Commerce, and the secretary of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER), who chairs the committee.

None of the Committee’s six scientific members attended the meeting at the Convention Center. The Secretary of the DNER did attend.

Barreto Orta, Méndez Tejeda, Monzón and Méndez Lázaro spoke with the CPI and attributed their absence to personal reasons or the impossibility of including at the last minute the event in their calendars. One of the Committee members asked if he could connect virtually to the meeting but got no response.

“[It’s] a good sign that they invited us,” Soderberg replied in writing, stating that he was invited to the meeting, although he did not attend due to prior commitments.

Members urge for budget allocation

Although all the Committee members will always perform their work voluntarily or ad honorem, the four who spoke with the CPI insisted on a budget allocation to be able to develop the structure and hire the staff that will contribute to the development of the Mitigation, Adaptation, and Resilience to Climate Change Plan, which the law requires.

“We have already drafted an outline of the Plan. The thing is, we need funding   and the Committee has no funds allocated. That’s the stumbling block right now. What we had to do was done. The evaluation, involving the different government agencies, was done. The draft was worked out, and some steps were taken to try to get funds, which aren’t for us, because we’re volunteers,” explained Monzón.

“We do not have clerical staff. We don’t have anyone to do feasibility studies for an energy project. If the time has come to conduct projects, then give us the budget to comply with the law,” said Méndez Tejeda, a tenured professor at the UPR in Carolina.

Former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares signed Act 33 weeks before his forced resignation in the summer of 2019. When the agencies submitted their initial budget proposal in November of that year, the Committee created by law was already constituted. However, the DNER — the working group’s umbrella agency — did not include the Committee’s work in the budget submitted to the government.

During the preparation of the budget draft, the secretary of the DNER was Tania Vázquez Rivera, who resigned from her position on October 31, 2019, after the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) revealed alleged irregularities in the agency’s hiring practices during her tenure.

“I was in charge of preparing the budget, the Committee approved it, and then it was submitted to the Office of Management and Budget. But Tania (Vázquez Rivera) was supposed to include the Committee in the budget submitted in November, since the Committee was approved in July (2019). She had enough time to mention that she had a new committee that needed funding when she submitted the budget to the OMB,” said Méndez Lázaro.

Current DNER Secretary Rafael Machargo Maldonado reacted to the complaint of a lack of budget for the Committee. “The Secretary of the DNER, as chairman of the Committee created by Act 33, coupled with a sub-committee of the Committee created by Act 33, began discussions with OMB for the allocation of an operational budget for the Committee,” he said in written statements.

The legal mandate for the Committee to work on the issue of erosion in its Plan appears in the statute’s section H, Article 9. Item 7 of the “Marine Systems and Coastal Zones” clause that establishes that the Plan should “prioritize addressing coastal erosion, and implement mitigation, adaptation and resilience strategies as an alternative to reduce the vulnerability of other indications of climate change such as storm surges, floods and rising sea levels.”

Duplication of efforts?

Following the meeting on September 2, the Governor released a statement in which she thanked scientists, academics and experts for “their unwavering commitment to the environment.”

“It’s time for these discussions to be implemented and that’s why it’s important that we’re all here together,” Vázquez Garced said in a press release.

The scientists and experts to whom the Governor alluded, are precisely the people who must continue to lead and carry out the task of preparing the Plan, as Act 33 establishes.

“There’s a mandate in place. You don’t have to make any plans. That (the mandate) is already there,” said Barreto Orta, who in addition to being a Committee member, is a professor at the UPR’s Graduate School of Planning in Río Piedras.

“Whatever the government does must be aligned with Act 33 and the Committee of Experts and Advisors must be supported, specifically in securing the funds allocation that the law establishes that the Committee must have to    draft the plan that must be delivered to the Legislative Assembly’s (Joint Committee on Mitigation, Adaptation and Resilience to Climate Change),” said the researcher specialized in coastal erosion in the Caribbean.

One of the issues that the La Fortaleza release highlighted was the opportunity to use mitigation funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to address the impact of coastal erosion. In fact, several of the members of the Committee created by Act 33 already have extensive experience working on federal proposals and projects with this type of funds granted by FEMA.

On August 25, part of the findings of the “Post-María Beach Assessment” study were published. Barreto Orta and Méndez Tejeda participated in the project, which used FEMA risk mitigation funds. The issue of coastal erosion is pivotal in the research.

“If they (the government) wanted to present something important at that meeting, Maritza (Barreto) and I, through the project that we have with COR3 (the Central Office of Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency), would have made a presentation of the 44 coastal towns. We have the proposal to work on everything,” said Méndez Tejeda, stressing that the Committee must play a leading role in the development of the government’s action plan to address coastal erosion.

The Committee was appointed by the Governor in November 2019, and all its members were evaluated by the Puerto Rico Senate and House of Representatives. The group’s first meeting though, was not held until February of this year.

Act 33 establishes that the Committee had 12 months, since the law went into effect, to present the Climate Change Mitigation, Adaptation and Resilience Plan to the Joint Committee by the same name in the Legislative Assembly. Because the law came into effect on July 1, 2019, the deadline for submitting the Plan was June of this year.

Acknowledging the delay with which the Committee was constituted and approved by the legislature, Sen. Carlos Rodríguez Mateo proposed several amendments to the law, including extending the deadline to submit the plan to February 2021.

The Senate approved the amendments, but the House of Representatives has not evaluated them, so the June 2019 date has come and gone, and the legally mandated Plan has not been submitted.

The CPI contacted La Fortaleza asking if an action plan on coastal erosion will be prepared to comply with Act 33, but it did not get a response.

Rafael R. Díaz Torres is a member of Report for America

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