The Las Placetas Hydroelectric Complex, planned in the central mountains of the Dominican Republic, is a project shrouded in controversy. While positioned as a source of "clean" electricity, environmentalists and community members raise significant concerns about its potential impact on the region's ecosystems and communities.
The project, involving the construction of a dam and three reservoirs in the Armando Bermudez National Park, threatens the diverse flora and fauna of the region, which includes the highest peaks in the Caribbean. It directly impacts three critical rivers: Rio Bao, Rio Jagua, and Yaque del Norte, which are already under pressure from existing dams that receive little to no maintenance.
Based on the report from the Academia de Ciencias in the Dominican Republic, it's highlighted that the environmental license for the Las Placetas Hydroelectric Project is not valid for the project's latest structures. The report states that the original environmental study conducted in 2009 for the project, which was substantially smaller in scope and cost, cannot be applied to the significantly expanded project as it stands in 2022. This discrepancy in project scope and the outdated environmental impact assessment call into question the legality and environmental viability of the current project plans. The report underscores the need for a new, comprehensive environmental evaluation to reflect the project's current scale and impact.
In a virtual conversation organized by the Sociedad Ecológica del Cibao (SOECI), engineer Alex Ramírez de Marchena raised serious concerns regarding the seismic risk associated with the construction of the Las Placetas dam. According to his statements, a seismic fault runs through the area where the dam is planned. This revelation, published in a video on SOECI's Facebook wall, has caused fear and concern among the communities along the Jagua and Bao rivers, as well as in Santiago and other towns. Constructing a dam on a seismic fault poses an imminent risk to these localities, and the government, driven by the ambition of interested parties, should not subject these communities to live in fear of a disaster caused by a major earthquake. The Coalición Socioambiental en Defensa de La Sierra pointed out that despite the announcement of the project 16 years ago, construction has not yet begun, raising suspicions. It's noteworthy that there are 14 active seismic faults in the country, four of which cross the Central Mountain Range.
This situation in the Dominican Republic mirrors the tragic Vajont Dam disaster in Italy. On October 9, 1963, a catastrophic landslide on Mount Toc caused approximately 270 million cubic meters of rock to collapse into the Vajont Dam reservoir at high velocities, creating a massive wave that overtopped the dam and resulted in the death of about 2,000 people. This disaster, one of the worst anthropogenic environmental catastrophes in history, was a direct consequence of human activity in a seismically active area, a cautionary tale highlighting the risks of ignoring geological and environmental factors in large-scale construction projects.
Given the similarities in the potential risks, it's crucial for authorities in the Dominican Republic to heed the lessons from the Vajont disaster and reevaluate the Las Placetas project, considering the significant seismic risks identified in the region.
A report by the Dutch government in April 2021 highlighted the Dominican Republic's vulnerability to climate change, ranking it 11th worldwide in terms of environmental disaster threats. The report emphasized a predicted 15% reduction in rainfall and a 22% reduction in the flow of the Yaque del Norte river by 2025. This casts doubt on the viability and efficiency of hydroelectric dams in the región.
Furthermore, the region is experiencing large-scale deforestation and heavy logging, which exacerbates the environmental impact. Downstream communities, promised benefits like potable water and electricity, historically have not received these promises. The construction also poses risks to health due to potential increases in mosquito-borne diseases and algal blooms in reservoirs.
The project, originally planned over 14 years ago, has been mired in financial irregularities. Initially estimated at around $70 million, costs have skyrocketed, with current projections exceeding $850 million. This dramatic increase from the original budget, which later rose to $350 million, raises serious questions about financial management and transparency. The current government, led by President Luis Abinader, plans to restart the project, yet concerns persist due to the lack of adequate community input and comprehensive environmental impact studies. This escalation in cost further intensifies the existing apprehensions regarding corruption and misallocation of resources.
Critically, the project's lead - a Brazilian conglomerate, Andrade Gutierrez - has a history of fines for corruption in global projects. Despite these red flags, the Dominican government continues to push the project as a public-private initiative, seemingly ignoring the environmental and ethical implications.
A 2021 poll conducted by Juan de Dios en la Tierra Inc. of New York indicated strong opposition to the project, with a majority of the local residents (over 90%) and the Dominican diaspora from the municipalities of San José de las Matas and Janico against it. To this day, this opposition remains strong, reflecting the ongoing concerns of the communities directly affected by the project.
The Las Placetas Hydroelectric Complex represents a significant threat to the Dominican Republic's environment and communities. Its development contradicts the government's stated strategies to protect rivers and guarantee clean water rights. As alternative energy sources remain unexplored and existing infrastructure underutilized, environmental groups seek support to halt this potentially devastating Project.