Ecojustice Perspectives from Puerto Rico

Ecojustice Perspectives from Puerto Rico

The islands of the Caribbean region are at risk because of the climate emergency that we are experiencing on the entire planet. Decades ago, the stress of environmental degradation was part of the struggles for justice, and unfortunately it continues to be a challenge for many disadvantaged communities. Christian churches in Puerto Rico have been active in environmental issues since 1960. Mission Industrial and the National Ecumenical Movement/Puerto Rico Church and Society Project (PRISA), were ecumenical organizations that support the struggles of communities committed to the message of justice of the Kingdom of God that the Gospel of Jesus Christ affirms. Mission Industrial were supported by Global Ministries for several decades in its community organizing and advocacy work in various locations in Puerto Rico.

I grew up in a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that modeled authentic Christian love for people and all creation. The threat of pollution came to my community in 1990, and the church became involved in all phases of the struggle against a regional landfill that Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) wanted to build on a farm next to our church, where the Guaynabo River begins. I was part of this effort to walk with the community in prayer, but also in action, in prayer services and public hearings, in vigils and peace rallies. After two years of intense struggle, the community won, the church won, and this was the first story of hope in eco-justice issues that I knew of, but there were many other communities in Puerto Rico that faced and are facing health degradation due to environmental problems.

Injustice and weak enforcement of local and federal environmental laws, lack of access to justice in Puerto Rico, marginalization, impoverishment, disease and death of individuals and entire communities are increasing. God has allowed me to collect more stories of hope from churches that are partnering with their communities on these complex environmental issues as part of the Doctor of Ministry Project at Brite Divinity School: Stories of Hope: Church Interventions in Eco-Justice Challenges and the Path to Addressing the Toa Alta Landfill Environmental Crisis.[1]  The opportunity to learn more about four courageous churches inspired me and many others.

After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, some companies arrived, not to help us, but to get ahead of the terrible situation the island was facing, especially with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). New Fortress Energy was one of these companies that began to build a liquified “natural” terminal gas in San Juan bay, near communities and key infrastructure of the largest port in Puerto Rico and one of the most important ports in the Caribbean. This company completed the construction of its facility and began operations in 2020 without an environmental impact statement and without site consultations that are required in this type of construction. The community did not know about the project.

New Fortress Energy does not have authorization from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to operate, nor did it want to apply for one. When the environmental group “El Puente” became aware of the process, they told us. Some of the churches and their pastors and a religious organization called “Hermandad Pastoral de Puerto Nuevo” sent a letter to FERC in March 2020 asking for a review of why New Fortress does not have FERC authorization and describing the safety risks and increase in pollution for the community. We sent another letter in June 2020 to follow up, and other environmental organizations sent another letter. They responded a year later that New Fortress needed to apply for a FERC permit. The decision allowed New Fortress to continue operating because, according to the local government, it was in the “public interest.  These letters opened up the possibility of eco-justice for many families who are vulnerable in the event of an accident or explosion. FERC did not have an office of public participation and opened one to address the claims of the communities.

New Fortress Energy appealed the FERC’s decision to the Court of Appeals in Washington DC. In addition to the safety risks, the air pollution from burning natural gas to produce electricity will add pollutants to neighborhoods already impacted by other sources of contamination. In the summer of 2022, we received the good news that the DC Court of Appeals denied New Fortress’ petition to operate without authorization from FERC. This was a victory in this long and hard process since 2019.

The Fellowship works with environmental organizations through educational programs, various ecumenical prayer events, and advocacy in local forums such as the courts and legislatures. All these efforts have been during the pandemic with many difficulties, but with an inner sense of justice that moves us to stand against environmental injustices. Another barrier is language because in Puerto Rico most of the people speak Spanish as their first language and all the documents and processes are in English. The process is an ongoing challenge because when New Fortress started the application with FERC they asked for confidentiality for many documents and the community does not have access to all the documents in the FERC docket and that affects them directly.

At the local government level in Puerto Rico, things are getting worse because, knowing that New Fortress does not have the FERC authorization, they awarded a huger contract for the PREPA generation plants to Genera, a subsidiary of New Fortress Energy. Now in 2023 New Fortress is requesting fast-track approval to expand their operations. We continue to work with the University of Puerto Rico’s Environmental Law Clinic, which is equipping people to understand how to comment to the FERC Office of Public Participation, hoping that the public hearings for this process can be held in Spanish. The Church, in alliance with environmental organizations in Puerto Rico and in the states, such as Earthjustice, continues to work and witness to love for people and creation.

The localized threats and eco-justice challenges increase their harsh consequences with the impacts of climate change in our communities. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Puerto Rico approved a resolution in the 2020 Convention regarding the Church’s response to climate change and requests that the government act in accordance with the laws and the well-being of Puerto Rico. The resolution opens up new possibilities of service to accompany and support the people in need. In Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, climate change is not a theory to be debated, but a harsh reality that is changing everything, displacing people, increasing the cost of living, and perpetuating poverty and injustice.

During difficult trials, we affirm that the kingdom of God is in us and among us, pursuing eco-justice for our communities and giving us hope to continue to struggle and not give up in all these complex issues. Even when the evil that many of the processes that enrich the few and affect the Earth are a reality, we have seen God with us, guiding our efforts and giving us discernment to move forward in these difficult circumstances. There are many other struggles for eco-justice in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and Latin America, and in each one where the church is present, it brings support, hope and the kingdom of God to the people and for the people as a sign of new possibilities for justice and care for creation.

Rev. Dr. Sary N. Rosario-Ferreira, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Puerto Rico
July 24, 2023                         

[1] Rosario-Ferreira, Sary N. Stories of Hope: Interventions of the Church in Ecojustice Challenges and the Path Address the Toa Alta Landfill Environmental Crisis. Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University. 2021.