Five weeks after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, the island appears to be in the midst of a growing environmental disaster.
One in four Puerto Ricans still lacks access to reliable drinking water. Some people whose water service had not been restored last week reportedly dragged bottles and barrels through holes in chain-link fences to siphon water from wells that could be infused with toxic waste from a nearby Superfund site.
There have also been reports of contaminated raw sewage and at least 74 suspected cases and two deaths from leptospirosis, a deadly animal-borne disease that can also live in water. Health workers on the ground are increasingly concerned about new outbreaks of waterborne diseases. Landfills are at capacity, according to CNN.
And as Vox’s Alexia Fernández Campbell reported, Puerto Rico’s water situation could be worse than the government suggests, with pumping stations powered by intermittent generators and limited fuels to boil water. ‘water.
The environmental health, waste and pollution crises are not simply the result of the storm – rather, they are the direct result of the island’s long energy and financial crisis.
After hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, millions of Americans found out the hard way how close they are to toxic waste and how easily they can be exposed to harmful chemicals seeping into floodwaters. and go through the houses. But for a dense, impoverished and remote place like Puerto Rico, the dangers are all the greater.
Congress is now weighing a $36.5 billion relief package for Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, but the Environmental Protection Agency, a major player in disaster relief, faces a uncertain future with looming staff and budget cuts.
Meanwhile, Scott Pruitt, who heads the EPA, is firmly entrenched on the industry side, and some of his deputies now want to roll back the agency’s rules on hazardous chemicals.
“To be frank, it’s really hard to be certain what the new administration is doing,” said Katherine Probst, an independent hazardous waste consultant who worked at the EPA during the Reagan administration.
For Puerto Rico, which faces acute toxic waste issues due to damaged infrastructure, this uncertainty can hamper immediate cleanup efforts and undermine long-term environmental remediation work on the island needed to protect health. people.
EPA plays major role in disaster relief in Puerto Rico
We don’t generally think of the EPA as an emergency responder, but the agency takes care of oil spills, chemical leaks, and large-scale disasters, while providing assistance to first responders on the ground. .
Outside of extreme events, the agency administers the cleanup of some of the country’s most polluted sites under the Superfund program.
It is a federal initiative to pay for the remediation of highly contaminated sites in the United States, established under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980.
The law allows the EPA to sue polluters to clean up their waste, and in cases where the responsible party cannot be found or is insolvent, it authorizes a “superfund” to pay for hazardous waste control.
The EPA currently has 1,342 sites on its National Superfund Priority List, each posing a unique challenge and risk. (The EPA has a site where you can find those near you.)
There are 18 Superfund sites in Puerto Rico, including the Dorado groundwater contamination site in the north-central part of the island where some people used to get their water.
The site is part of a drinking water network that serves 67,000 people. Authorities detected the carcinogens tetrachlorethylene and trichlorethylene there in the 1980s, and in 2016 it was added to the EPA’s Federal Superfund list of the most contaminated sites in the United States.
As the Dorado site illustrates, many people in dense cities in Puerto Rico live near hazardous waste, and power outages and containment damage after storms like Maria increase the likelihood of people being exposed.
And Puerto Rico faces unique challenges when it comes to toxic hazards. Much of the waste in Puerto Rico comes from its once booming pharmaceutical industry, said Judith Enck, who until January led EPA Region II, which includes Puerto Rico.
“They’re all pretty serious,” she said.
Conditions on Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico that is home to 9,000 people, are of particular concern. Prior to the storm, it was used as a Navy bombardment area for 60 years and was littered with unexploded ordnance. Then came Maria.
“The main question is how much of this ordnance washed up in the sea,” Enck said.
Puerto Rico was also facing a landfill crisis before Maria, with 19 of the island’s 29 landfills in violation of federal law, piling up with trash and bathing nearby communities in a putrid stench.
The landfill situation has only worsened as Puerto Ricans seek to dispose of damaged and waterlogged debris.
Meanwhile, Puerto Rico’s island geography means waste management equipment must be shipped, increasing cleanup costs compared to sites in the mainland US and fueling a bottleneck of relief supplies. .
Federal officials send mixed messages about cleaning up trash
The EPA now has its work cut out for Puerto Rico. The agency currently has 125 people on the ground on the island with the priority of restoring drinking water to the inhabitants.
Workers are taking measurements and monitoring sites to see if the toxic stains have moved and are desperately trying to cope with the scale of the environmental cleanup challenge that awaits them.
Agency management, however, has sent mixed signals about how it prioritizes environmental cleanup.
EPA Administrator Pruitt is rolling back the agency’s work on air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, fulfilling a fossil fuel industry wish list. Pruitt also supports major budget cuts and aims to downsize the agency.
However, he has also pledged to support the Superfund cleanup, which makes sense given that there are Superfund sites all over the country, including in coal, oil and gas producing regions.
“Superfund is the only program that Administrator Pruitt isn’t trying to erase,” Enck said.
But then Pruitt also offered to cut funds for the Superfund litigation at the Justice Department that forces polluters to pay for cleanup.
All of this makes it difficult to gauge the federal government’s commitment to controlling toxic waste, creating uncertainty for Puerto Ricans rebuilding from the recent hurricane.
Pete Lopez, the new head of EPA Region II, acknowledged the enormity of the task ahead and the sustained effort it requires. “In my experience, communities that are struggling financially will be most eager to respond,” he said. “There needs to be a long-term commitment that not only includes commitment, but provides timely resources as needed.”