SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – On December 6, 2023, a Federal Grand Jury in the District of Puerto Rico returned two separate indictments charging three individuals for violations of the Clean Water Act. The charges relate to the illegal construction and deposit of material into the wetlands and waters of the United States in the Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve (the “Jobos Estuarine Reserve”).
Various federal agencies are involved in this ongoing investigation into environmental crimes in the Jobos Estuarine Reserve and Las Mareas community as part of the Caribbean Environmental Crimes Task Force, including the Environmental Protection Agency Criminal Investigation Division (EPA-CID), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. Department of the Army Criminal Investigation Division (Army-CID), U.S. Department of Commerce, Office of Inspector General (DOC-OIG), National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Office of Law Enforcement (NOAA-OLE), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement (FW‑OLE).
According to the first indictment, from June 2018 to December 2023, Rafael Carballo-Díaz and Nathaniel Hernández-Claudio knowingly discharged fill material from excavation and earth moving equipment into the wetlands and waters of the United States in violation of the Clean Water Act. Carballo-Díaz operated a guesthouse business called El Cacique Resort on the property located at the Southwest of Camino del Indio in the Las Mareas area of Salinas, Puerto Rico. Nathaniel Hernández-Claudio acted as a host and property manager at El Cacique Resort on the Property.
The second indictment charges Awildo Jiménez-Mercado with violations of the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act. Jiménez-Mercado knowingly discharged fill material from excavation and earth moving equipment into the wetlands and built a boat dock without authorization of the Secretary of the Army, in violation of the Rivers and Harbors Act.
Awildo Jiménez-Mercado also operated a guest house business called “Hidden Paradise” on a separate property. Both El Cacique Resort and Hidden Paradise offered guests a pool, outdoor dining areas, and housing units as short-term rentals.
The Clean Water Act was enacted by Congress in 1972 to protect and maintain the integrity of the waters of the United States. The Clean Water Act’s main purpose is to ensure the restoration and maintenance of the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters. It prohibits the discharge of any pollutant and fill material into waters of the United States except when a permit is obtained from the United States.
The Rivers and Harbors Act was originally enacted in 1899 and is generally considered the oldest environmental law in the United States. It serves to regulate and protect the navigable waters of the United States and prohibits the un-permitted construction of structures within those waters.
Both the Clean Water Act and the Rivers and Harbors Act protect the coastal waters within the Jobos Estuarine Reserve.
The Jobos Estuarine Reserve was designated as a National Estuarine Research Reserve by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1981 and is comprised of approximately 2,800 acres of coastal ecosystems in the Southern coastal plain of Puerto Rico. The Jobos Estuarine Reserve contains mangrove islands, mangrove forests, tidal wetlands, coral reefs, lagoons, salt flats, dry forest, and seagrass beds. It is also home to the endangered brown pelican, peregrine falcon, hawksbill turtle, and West Indian manatee. The Jobos Estuarine Reserve is owned and operated by the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (PR‑DNER).
The three defendants were arrested and are scheduled to appear today before Magistrate Judge Marshal D. Morgan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico for their respective initial appearances. If convicted, the defendants are facing up to three years of imprisonment for the Clean Water Act violations, fines, and injunctive relief to remove violative structures. Jimenez-Mercado is also facing one year in prison for the River and Harbors Act violations.
W. Stephen Muldrow, U.S. Attorney for the District of Puerto Rico, and Todd Kim, Assistant Attorney General of the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice made the announcement.
The case is being prosecuted by Senior Trial Attorney Patrick M. Duggan of the Environmental Crimes Section of the U.S. Department of Justice and Assistant U.S. Attorney Seth A. Erbe, Environmental Litigation Coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Puerto Rico.
These indictments are part of an ongoing investigation that include two indictments returned in May 2023. See https://www.justice.gov/usao-pr/pr/two-men-indicted-environmental-crimes-committed-jobos-bay-national-estuarine-research.
If you have any information related to this investigation or environmental crimes in the area, please contact enforcement officials, which may be done anonymously. The EPA can be contacted at (787) 977-5821 or at https://echo.epa.gov/denuncie-violaciones-ambientales. The FBI can be contacted at (787) 987-6500 or https://tips.fbi.gov/.
For more information on the Jobos Bay National Estuarine Reserve, please visit https://www.drna.pr.gov/jbnerr/ or https://coast.noaa.gov/nerrs/reserves/jobos-bay.html.
An indictment is merely an allegation, and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.