Economic crisis causes environmental issues at Puerto Rico’s landfills
One of the more serious and often neglected issues emerging from Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis has been the environmental damage surrounding the island’s poorly managed landfills. The number of staff overseeing the island’s landfills and ensuring federal standards are met at the landfills has reached insufficient levels in recent years, due in part to Puerto Rico’s financial problems.
In a June letter from the United States Environmental Protection Agency Region 2 administrator Judith Enck to Representative Dennis Ross of Florida, Enck wrote “This problem is compounded by the dwindling resources made available to the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board by the central government to carry out their solid waste compliance and enforcement program, a situation that we understand predated the current fiscal crisis facing the Commonwealth…This has resulted in, among other things, reduced staffing and reported delays in permitting of new and existing landfills.”
One of the reports that emerged this year exposing the difficulties at Puerto Rico’s landfills came from the citizen advocacy group Puerto Rico Limpio. In the foreword, Dr. Michael K Dorsey, an appointee on the US EPA’s National Advisory Committee, identified that two thirds or more of Puerto Rico’s landfills are not in compliance with EPA standards. EPA documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), show a bureaucratic disconnect between the EPA and the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) as well as the Puerto Rican government.
The problems began in 1994, when the EQB submitted a proposal to the EPA to delegate oversight power of the landfills to a local level. Despite agreeing to close a number of landfills and abide by the federal standards set by the EPA, management of Puerto Rico’s landfills has been wanting. In annual assessments of the island’s landfills between 2005 and 2014, EPA officers and representative gave consistently poor summaries of the landfill situations. The situation has caught the attention of US Representative Luis Gutierrez who said:
“If this were happening in Chicago, I would be surrounded right now by legislators from Illinois…We can’t have all these toxic landfills in Puerto Rico that we wouldn’t have in Michigan, in Maryland, in Illinois, in California or anywhere from the districts that all of you come from. You wouldn’t have it in your backyard. It wouldn’t happen.”
In a public statement released September, the EPA outlined a plan to close and initiate new recycling/composting measures got Puerto Rico’s most troublesome landfills. The landfills due for closure and reform include the landfills at Juncos, Isabela, Moca, Cayey, and Arroyo. The EPA has also sent orders to the landfill operators to implement mosquito control plans in light of the recent uptick in zika cases on the island. The EPA has also outlined a future agenda it calls EJ: 2020, an initiative to expand on the administration’s environmental justice imperatives.
Whether the plan will involve a serious restaffing of the management of Puerto Rico’s landfills or a wholesale shift in the environmental accountability over to the EPA instead of the EQB remains to be seen. Puerto Rico’s natural environment may also be at stake as the fiscal situation remains tenuous and uncertain.