Friday, October 23, 2020

Geologists in Puerto Rico have been unlicensed during seismic emergency period due to government inefficiency

By on October 14, 2020

Property damage in Guánica caused by this year’s earthquakes.

By Rafael R. Díaz Torres

Puerto Rico learned the importance of the geology profession with the seismic events that took place between December and January in the southern part of the island. The advice of geologists has been needed several times since the beginning of 2020.

However, geologists have been working in Puerto Rico for at least three years without an active Board of Examiners, which is supposed to regulate the profession and grant licenses.

According to four geologists consulted, the Board of Examiners of Geologists of Puerto Rico began to disappear during the previous government administration and five years later, the government has not activated it, putting at risk one of the most relevant professions in a territory that for the past two and a half years has experienced significant geophysical changes due to hurricanes in 2017, accelerated coastal erosion, and earthquakes.

Although the general information and contact number for the Board of Examiners of Geologists appears on the official State Department website, the regulatory body is not active. The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) called the number published on the page, and although the official who answered said the number in fact belongs to the Examining Board, the person then went on to say that the body is inactive.

Since February 14, Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced has had the matter before her for consideration, but she has not acted on it, the CPI confirmed. A group of geologists delivered a document to her in mid-February in which they suggested professionals to fill the positions in the Examining Board to once again stabilize the practice of geology in Puerto Rico through the granting of licenses.

The Law to create the Board of Examiners of Geologists of Puerto Rico (Law 163 of 1996) establishes that this entity will be composed of five members appointed by the governor. Three will be geologists with at least five years of professional experience in Puerto Rico and the other members will be a civil engineer and a chemist, recognized by the State in their respective professions.

In late February, when the CPI approached La Fortaleza Press Officer Mariana Cobián, she said that the steps for the governor to consider the candidates nominated to the Examining Board “are underway.” Six months later, after several follow-up procedures, there was no response.

“Geology is a licensed profession in most places. In many instances, including Puerto Rico, geology is viewed as a pure science and was thought only from the academic point of view. But it’s a science that has many applications and feeds other professions very well, such as engineers, architects, planners,” Elías Mangual, the former president of the Puerto Rico Geological Society, told the CPI.

The geologist explained how the approval of the enabling law in 1996 was the product of that professional group’s struggle.

Photo by Nahira Montcourt | Center for Investigative Journalism

Guánica has been one of the municipalities most affected by the earthquakes this year.

“When governor (Pedro) Rosselló took office and the mentality of building a certain infrastructure started, they began to see the geologist as necessary. At that time, most of the work the geologist did was for soil engineering companies or environmental companies. One of the most common problems we had was regarding salaries. We had to charge what the engineers wanted to pay us. That was one of the drives the Geological Society had at that time,” said Mangual, who has been unable to renew his expired license due to the absence of the Examining Board.

According to that law, a professional in this area is dedicated to “describing and evaluating the natural processes that act on terrestrial materials, gases and fluids; predict the probable occurrence of natural resources; predict, evaluate and locate natural or human-induced phenomena that may be useful or present a risk to public safety or welfare; and recognize, determine and evaluate geological factors.” Among the actions that the law mentions for geology professionals are the performance of geological services, the preparation of geological maps, as well as consulting, evaluation and area inspections.

The law allows the granting of a geologist-in-training certificate, in addition to the professional license.

Each license is valid for five years. It was precisely five years ago that the last professional licenses were granted in Puerto Rico, according to Mangual.

“The licenses have expired,” the geologist lamented.

Government instability affects the work of geologists

There is a geology division at the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA, in Spanish). However, said office currently has only one person: Geologist Ruth Vélez, who admits that the work of geologists in Puerto Rico has not stopped, despite the fact that the licenses continue to expire and there is no Board of Examiners to renew them. Vélez said the DRNA has a total of four outstanding geologists in different offices within this agency. In Vélez’s case, her work is mainly focused on Puerto Rico’s western region.

When asked why she’s the only person in the DRNA’s Geology Division, Vélez said Law 7 of 2009 (the “Special Law Declaring a State of Fiscal Emergency and Establishing a Comprehensive Fiscal Stabilization Plan to Save Puerto Rico’s Credit”) as one of the reasons that influenced the loss of funds for her unit and the dismissal of employees. Law 7, which was implemented during the administration of former Gov. Luis Fortuño Burset, prompted the layoff of 30,000 public sector workers.

“The situation has worsened due to the [COVID-19] pandemic, as the State Department has not appointed the necessary members to make the Board operational and to evaluate the accumulated requests,” the DRNA geologist said.

“The practice of geology hasn’t ended in Puerto Rico. However, we have many engineers and biologists talking about geology. The goal of protecting our profession with the law hasn’t been achieved. It’s an issue that must be resolved,” said Vélez, claiming that the lack of recognition of her profession and the problem with the Examining Board has resulted in professionals from other areas to fill the positions meant for those who studied geology at the university level.

The position that Velez holds at the DRNA is “Licensed Geologist 2.” Like other positions that were created in the public sector after the approval of the Examining Board enabling law of 1996, the position requires a geologist’s license. Vélez told the CPI that her license expired, and she has no way to renew it. Several of her colleagues in government have the same problem.

Although Article 16 of the law states that any person who practices the profession without a license could be subject to penalties, the absence of an Examining Board prevents compliance with this statute.

“My agency (DRNA) isn’t going to penalize me. There has been no official statement. We’re working. In terms of reputation, (the lack of an active license) doesn’t take away from us, but there’s a procedural matter that needs to be addressed. No one expected geologists to end up without licenses. This is a legal mess,” Velez said.

The DRNA geologist also regretted that other agencies or public corporations do not hire geologists on their staff, as is the case of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) that resorts to sporadic hiring of geologists for soil and infrastructure matters.

“The need for a geologist in that agency is justified because it would validate what other geologists who are hired [by PREPA] say. But as long as that person doesn’t exist, who validates that at the agency?” Velez said.

In the case of the government’s Bureau for Emergency and Disaster Management (NMEAD, in Spanish) the agency does not have a geologist position. The agency’s Press Officer, Kiara Hernández, said that since it is a rapid response coordinating body for before, during and after emergency situations, the NMEAD is limited to identifying those officials who work as geologists in other agencies and that may intervene in certain events.

“If the Bureau for Emergency and Disaster Management had to convene a delegation of geologists now on the issue of earthquakes and they went to look for reinforcements in other agencies, they wouldn’t have enough,” Mangual said.

Challenges of retaining professionals and the academia’s role

In Puerto Rico, the only academic program that offers geology degrees is at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez (UPRM). It has an undergraduate and a master’s degree program. In fact, a thesis presented in 2010 by master’s degree student Coral Roig Silva investigated the Punta Montalva fault, a formation that is currently associated with the seismic activity that occurred earlier this year in the southern region of the island.

The Puerto Rico Seismic Network is part of the UPRM’s Geology Department.

Even with the contributions made by the UPR in the area of geology, the Seismic Network has operated with limited funds in recent years, threatening its operation. It was precisely this office under the Geology Department’s umbrella that was responsible for providing updated data after the January 7 earthquake and following the aftershocks in subsequent days. It works 24 hours a day.

According to Wilson Ramírez, professor at the UPRM’s Geology Department, the Government must recognize the value of geologists and encourage them to stay in Puerto Rico to address the problems of soils, the environment and infrastructure.

“The Examining Board’s problem is it’s members. Who’s going to be on that Board? The responsibility of going from Mayagüez (on the West coast) to here (San Juan, in the North) is very difficult for the geology professors in Mayagüez,” Ramírez told the CPI.

The scholar advocated that licensed geologists be included in the permit process. “There are many environmental problems that we geologists are specifically trained to look at, but we haven’t been allowed to do so, the approval of licensed geologists is not required on development projects,” he added.

Visibility and recognition of the importance of geology increased as of last January. According to Lorna Jaramillo, a geologist and professor at the UPR’s Río Piedras Campus, there are so many requests for conferences and orientations after the earthquakes, that neither she nor her colleagues can handle all of them.

“It is important that this discipline isn’t ignored and it’s kept in mind that it’s an important player in decision-making for a Puerto Rico that is prepared for seismic events and other types of situations that could come up. For example, if there’s an area where, in addition to looking at the soil, you have to look at the structural geology, then a geologist will have a more complete view in terms of faults, in terms of susceptibilities, in terms of stability of the slope,” said the also Assistant Dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Research of the UPR’s Río Piedras Campus.

Advocating for changes in the law

Several people approached by the CPI agree that the 1996 law should be amended given the reality of the shortage of geology professionals in Puerto Rico. Some aspects need to be relaxed to reactivate the Board of Examiners of Geologists and accomplish a transition toward gradual licensing.

One of the most problematic aspects is the fact that the government passed a comprehensive and ambitious law without necessarily developing appropriate ways to implement the mandate and regulate the profession, the geologists consulted concurred.

“The law itself establishes the penalties for practicing without a license, but it’s awkward for the government to establish penalties for practicing my profession. You pass a law that limits the way in which I can earn a living, but the government doesn’t address the mechanisms that make that law functional,” Mangual said.

Another aspect mentioned by members of Puerto Rico’s geological community is the fact that prior to getting the license, applicants must take two exams and have at least two years of professional experience under the supervision of a licensed geologist. That, Mangual says, prompts recent Mayagüez graduates to choose to get on a plane and work for a good salary in the federal government, before submitting to requirements that will not guarantee a well-paid position in Puerto Rico’s public or private sectors.

For the former Chairwoman of the Board of Examiners of Geologists, Maritza Barreto, the current requirements imposed by law make it more difficult to recruit geologists here.

Photo by José Rodríguez | Center for Investigative Journalism

Maritza Barreto, former Chairwoman of the Board of Examiners of Geologists

“It’s very important that there be thoroughness in the evaluation, but I think there must also be a balance, because many times those requirements are excessive, in my opinion. Much of the problem is the small number of geologists in Puerto Rico. Perhaps part of the reason is the lack of recognition by the government and the private industry toward the geologist, of the main duty and responsibility they have to solve many problems that are being solved right now by many [other] professionals,” said Barreto, who is a marine geologist and professor at the Graduate School of Planning of the University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras Campus.

Meanwhile, Vélez proposed that the 1996 law be amended to allow geologists licensed in some other jurisdiction in the United States to be part of the Board of Examiners during the transition that leads to the beginning of its reconstitution. She also proposed that an emergency committee be created and that other trade groups such as the College of Engineers and Surveyors of Puerto Rico be allowed to collaborate in the process of renewing geologist licenses.

Currently, the Puerto Rico Department of Housing is working on the Action Plan in response to the allocation of $8.2 billion in federal funds for Community Development Block Grant Mitigation (CDBG-MIT) Program. This budget will be used for infrastructure repair and the analysis of the vulnerability of the land on which it is built, among others. Given this scenario, Mangual shared his concern with the CPI that there are not enough geologists in Puerto Rico to contribute to carrying out these recovery works.

“Right now, you have funds that are supposedly going to be released at some point to rebuild an infrastructure that is very delicate. Right now, there aren’t enough engineers, enough geologists, or people with expertise in specialized construction methods to deal with this,” he warned.

Rafael R. Díaz Torres is a member of Report for America.