Students Assist in Costa Ric a Environmental Contamination Case

Published: September 22nd, 2003

Category: News

UF law students Thomas Ruppert (3L) and Quilla Trimmer-Smith (2L) participated this summer in a joint University of Florida/University of Costa Rica Program in Environmental Law Conservation Clinic project with law students from the University of Colorado and University of Costa Rica. The students researched ISO 14001 International Standards for Environmental Management Systems as part of an administrative case their client, the Costa Rican environmental organization Justicia Para la Naturaleza, had against Standard Fruit Company of Costa Rica for alleged agrochemical contamination of water. A chemical spill occurred at Standard Fruit facilities near Batán, Costa Rica. The spill allegedly leaked into a nearby canal and killed thousands of fish for miles downstream in an area where the canal and the waters it contributes to serve as sources of drinking and wash water and food in the form of fish. This was the first time there existed a recorded spill possibly linked to one of several massive fish kills that have occurred in this banana-producing region of Costa Rica. Standard Fruit submitted paperwork to the tribunal emphasizing that Standard had been certified in compliance with ISO 14001 International Environmental Management System Standards. The tribunal had no knowledge of ISO 14001 and Standard took advantage of this to imply that ISO 14001 certification precluded finding Standard liable for contamination. However, ISO 14001 is not international law and does not preclude liability for a company in Costa Rica. ISO 14001 emanates from a private organization — the International Organization for Standardization — and while many assume it assures superior performance of a certified company, it contains absolutely no substantive environmental requirements. Rather, ISO 14001 only requires specific management structures related to environmental aspects of a company. It offers great potential to improve the environmental performance of companies or can be used as “greenwash.” As part of their research, students visited Standard Fruit, experts that helped draft ISO 14001 standards, representatives of workers affected by the chemical contamination, and the chief of certification at the Costa Rican Institute of National Standards. Their research culminated in a written brief to the administrative tribunal to inform the tribunal of the nature and scope of ISO 14001. Additionally, the students visited the rural town of Siquirres to speak to community representatives and banana workers about the nature and scope of ISO 14001 and answer questions about it. The students also drafted a simple question and answer guide about ISO 14001 for community members and representatives. A decision for the contamination case against Standard Fruit is pending, but thanks in part to the efforts of the students involved in the project, the administrative tribunal and affected communites now have clear information about ISO 14001 and its significance in this matter.

Tagged as: