AyA’s opacity in the case of contaminated water raises suspicions in the Prosecutor’s Office

The lack of transparency with which the Costa Rican Institute of Aqueducts and Sewers (AyA) addressed the first reports by water contamination at the Guadalupe water treatment plant raises suspicions in the Public Ministry and opens the main focus on the criminal investigation underway after this event.

The inhabitants of Guadalupe, Moravia, Tibás and Montes de Oca noticed the strange taste in the liquid since the night of January 21st. However, it was not until 4 days later that it was proven that they were right and that the water they drank was contaminated with hydrocarbons.

On January 23, 2 days after the first warnings, the Ministry of Health ruled out contamination. The repeated warnings from the neighbors and the lack of clarity on the part of the authorities led to the fact that to this day January 25 The presence of hydrocarbons was confirmed and the supply to thousands of inhabitants was suspended.

The emergency escalated and new elements were added along the way. In addition to the lack of clarity in official communications about what was happening, workers at the water treatment plant in Guadalupe detailed through logs that the water was perceived as smelling like fuel and that, by order of the AyA plant management, it would have continued to be distributed.

The analyzes carried out by researchers from the University of Costa Rica (UCR) revealed on January 31 that the hydrocarbons that polluted were 3 xylenes: meta-xylene, ortho-xylene and para-xylene.

The amount found was classified by scientists as “not detectable.” But, the color and flavor perceived by the affected population remained for several days as a result of the remnants of these chemical compounds in the pipes.

The contamination originated in the Quebrada Honda 2 subbasin located northeast of the Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM) and which supplies the facilities in Guadalupe.

Luis Diego Hernández, coordinating prosecutor of the Deputy Agrarian Environmental Prosecutor’s Office of the Public Ministry, explained to CRHoy.com that the investigation now focuses on the AyA’s handling of the situation after the arrival of the contaminated water at the plant.

“It seems to us that it was not completely transparent. At some point there was no quality information for the user. The investigation focuses on the institution’s handling of this type of situation,” the official was quoted as saying.

Hernández clarified that, until February 12, the way in which the contamination occurred was unknown. All hypotheses remain open. From direct to indirect contamination, to voluntary or involuntary action.

“Like citizens and like a sector of the media, The Prosecutor’s Office did perceive some type of lack of transparency in the management of information. Days, weeks even passed. The first alerts about the condition of the water, the smell, came from the citizens. Yeah, The Prosecutor’s Office has perceived a certain lack of transparency which, for us, is a vein of research. It is a situation that generates suspicion and that prompts us to deploy an entire investigation into the handling that AyA gave to this contaminated water from the Guadalupe treatment plant in those days,” said Hernández.

Thus, the primary objective of the Agrarian Environmental Prosecutor’s Office is to establish the management given to the situation after the first anomalous reports registered between January 21 and 22.

The intention is to decipher if there was a possibility of preventing the contaminated water from reaching the more than 100,000 people affected and if there were omissions when knowing the warnings due to the strange odors in the liquid.

“The investigation is focusing on the handling that the institution gave to the arrival of this foreign body, this hydrocarbon, at the Guadalupe treatment plant. The management that was given to guarantee or have prevented the liquid from reaching such a large population. These are hundreds of people who could have ingested or come into contact with the water”, emphasized the prosecutor in charge of the case.

At the moment, there are no individual defendants in the case. In the coming days, the prosecution will receive a complete report from the UCR after composite samples captured in a considerable stretch of the Quebrada Honda 2 sub-basin. Other investigations by the Judicial Investigation Agency (OIJ) are also pending.

Lost time

The prosecutor was clear that the opacity that the AyA would have given to the first moments of the situation prevented taking water samples in the optimal scenarios.

“The sampling They could not be taken at the most opportune time to have had the sample in sufficient quality and quantity to determine the magnitude of the contaminant that made contact with the water from the treatment plant. We are hardly going to know that because, precisely, A long time passed without the AyA being sufficiently transparent, or we do not know if it was culpable, so that it would have been sampled at a more opportune time. The analyzes that are available are when a lot of water had already passed through that riveras we can popularly say,” he indicated.

The prosecution points to the possible existence of a malicious or culpable scenario once the contaminated hydrocarbon arrived at the treatment plant and it was decided to continue with the supply.

In that facility there are officials who can make the decision to distribute the water in that condition.

The crisis over water contamination forced the departure of Alejandro Guillén Guardia as executive president of the entity. The official, appointed to the position on February 1, 2023was separated from the entity on January 30, 2024.

In the position he was appointed Juan Manuel Quesada Espinozawho served as executive president of the Costa Rican Oil Refinery (Recope) between May 8, 2022 and January 30, 2024.

Roberto Urcuyo Solorzanoresearcher at the Center for Research in Electrochemistry and Chemical Energy (Celeq) of the UCR said that “the fact that they are xylenes explains the color (transparent) and the ‘sweet’”

“Due to the fact that many days have passed and the low presence of this material, it is very difficult to trace what other substances they could be accompanied with, since normally xylenes are sold on the market with certain impurities“, said the researcher on February 1, in a press conference.

UCR researchers found xylenes in the water samples that supply the 3 cantons affected by contamination |  Ministry of Health

UCR researchers found xylenes in the water samples that supply the 3 cantons affected by contamination | Ministry of Health

Ariel Alfaro, chemical regent in the UCR School of Chemistry and toxicology specialist, added on that occasion that what was detected in the water would be a mixture of the 3 types of xylenes, known as “xylol.”

This component non-carcinogenic according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). But, it can cause damage to the skin and respiratory tract if inhaled. In addition, it is capable of causing stomach upset.

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