FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASEENRD
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 28, 2000(202) 514-2007
WWW.USDOJ.GOVTDD (202) 514-1888
PUERTO RICAN RESORT GUILTY OF
VIOLATING CLEAN WATER ACT
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - 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 federal Clean Water Act, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD), Lois Schiffer announced today. The hotel discharged 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 without the required federal permit, from October 1, 1996 and continuing through September 16, 1997.
Arnold Benus, the President and majority shareholder of one of the corporations that operated the Copamarina Beach Resort, Concho Corporation, pled guilty to a felony count of knowingly discharging domestic sewage (a pollutant) 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 United States, Mr. 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 before U.S. District Judge José A. Fusté.
"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. Further investigation uncovered that the discharges were knowing and that the defendants had received prior warning about the illegal nature of their conduct," said Assistant Attorney General Schiffer. "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."
The Clean Water Act, which regulates the discharge of pollutants into waters of the U.S., Puerto Rico and the territorial seas, was enacted to protect the chemical, physical and biological integrity of these waters. Permits regulating the permissible amounts of pollutants that may be discharged are issued in accordance with the National Pollution Elimination System (NPDES). The discharge of any pollutant without a permit is unlawful under the Act.
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 the required NPDES permit. The EQB notified the defendants, Arnold Benus and Concho Corporation, of these violations and requested that they stop the discharges. The defendants considered changing the wastewater treatment system to a "zero-discharge" system, but in the interim, did not upgrade the facility or stop the discharges. Nor did they seek or obtain the required permit.
On August 20, 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 taken and found to contain high levels of Fecal Coliform. These findings lead to the execution of a criminal search warrant at the hotel on August 21, 1997. Dye testing of the wastewater treatment system confirmed that the hotel was discharging domestic sewage from its treatment plant directly to the sea.
Following the search warrant, EPA filed a civil lawsuit in federal district court to enjoin and stop the discharges immediately. On or about September 16, 1997, the Copamarina Beach Resort finally stopped the discharges and began using the zero-discharge system.
On October 17, 2000, the U.S. District Court entered a Consent Decree to resolve EPA's civil claims brought in 1997 under the Clean Water Act against Mr. Benus, General Manager Salvador Suau, Concho Corporation and Sapo Corporation (a corporation that manages the Copamarina Beach Resort). Under the terms of the Consent Decree, the defendants will pay a civil penalty of $200,000 to the United States and will be permanently enjoined from discharging any pollutant from any source at the Copamarina Beach Resort into waters of the United States unless such discharge is in full compliance with the Clean Water Act and its implementing regulations.
In announcing today's guilty pleas, Assistant Attorney General Schiffer commended the work of Senior Litigation Counsel Howard P. Stewart and Trial Attorney David Lastra of the Environmental Crimes Section, ENRD, as well as of Trial Attorney George Pierce of Environmental Enforcement Section, ENRD, and Attorney Silvia Carreño-Coll, Assistant Regional Counsel for the EPA in Puerto Rico. Assistant Attorney General Schiffer also recognized the work of Special Agent Joseph Zaharuk of the Criminal Investigations Division of EPA's office in New York City, who conducted the investigation.