Five weeks after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, the island appears to be in the midst of a growing environmental disaster.
One in four Puerto Ricans still does not have 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 off water from wells that could be infused with toxic waste from a nearby Superfund site.
Contaminated water has also been reported. raw sewage and at least 74 suspected cases and two dead leptospirosis, a fatal disease of animal origin that can also live in water. Health workers in the field are increasingly concerned about new epidemics of water-borne diseases. The discharges are at full capacity, depending on CNN.
And as Vox’s Alexia Fernández Campbell reported, the water situation in Puerto Rico could be worse than the government has hinted at, with pump stations powered by intermittent generators and limited fuels for boiling water. the water.
The environmental health, waste and pollution crises are not just the result of the storm – rather, they are a direct result of the island’s long energy and financial crisis.
After hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, millions of Americans discovered it the hard way how close they are to toxic waste and how easily they can be exposed like harmful chemicals that seep into flood water and pass through homes. But for a dense, poor and remote place like Puerto Rico, the dangers are all the more serious.
Congress now weighs a A $ 36.5 billion relief plan for Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, but the Environmental Protection Agency, a major player in disaster relief, faces an uncertain future with impending staff and budget cuts.
At the same time, Scott Pruitt, who heads the EPA, is firmly anchored on the industry side, and some of his deputies now want to roll back the agency. dangerous chemicals rules.
“To be blunt, it’s really hard to be sure 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 serious toxic waste issues due to damaged infrastructure, this uncertainty may hamper immediate cleanup efforts and undermine long-term environmental remediation work on the island needed to protect the health of people. people.
EPA plays major role in Puerto Rico disaster relief
We don’t generally think of the EPA as an emergency responder, but the agency supports during oil spills, chemical leaks and large-scale disasters, while provide backup to first responders in the field.
Apart from extreme events, the agency administers the clean-up of some of the most polluted sites in the country as part of the Superfund program.
This is a federal initiative to fund the remediation of highly contaminated sites in the United States, established as part of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act from 1980.
The law allows the EPA to prosecute polluters for cleaning up their waste, and in cases where the responsible party cannot be found or is insolvent, it allows a “superfund” to pay for hazardous waste control.
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 locations in Puerto Rico, including the Dorado Groundwater Contamination Site in the north-central part of the island where some people obtained water.
The site is part of a drinking water network that serves 67,000 people. Authorities detected tetrachlorethylene and trichlorethylene carcinogens in the 1980s, and in 2016 it was added to the EPA. Federal list of superfonds 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 risks. 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 are all pretty serious,” she said.
Of particular concern are conditions on Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico that is home to 9,000 people. Before the storm he served as a Navy bombardment field for 60 years and was littered with unexploded ordnance. Then came Maria.
“The main question is how much of this ammunition was dumped into the sea,” Enck said.
Puerto Rico also faced a landfill crisis before Maria, with 19 of 29 landfills on the island in violation of federal law, accumulating garbage and bathing neighboring communities in a putrid smell.
The landfill situation has to get worse as Puerto Ricans seek to dump the damaged and waterlogged debris.
All the while, Puerto Rico’s island geography means waste management equipment has to be shipped, increasing cleanup costs compared to sites on the Americas and fueling a relief supplies bottleneck.
Federal officials send mixed messages on garbage cleanup
The EPA now has its work cut out for Puerto Rico. The agency currently has 125 people on the land of the island with a priority to restore drinking water to the inhabitants.
Workers are taking measurements and monitoring sites to see if the toxic plaques have shifted and are desperately trying to cope with the scale of the environmental cleanup challenge that awaits them.
Agency management, however, has sent mixed signals on how they prioritize cleaning up the environment.
EPA administrator Pruitt is canceling the agency’s work on air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, fulfilling a wish list from the fossil fuel industry. Pruitt also supports major budget cuts and aims to reduce agency staff.
However, it is also support promised for cleaning up the Superfund, 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 does not try to erase,” Enck said.
But then, Pruitt also proposed cut funds for Superfund litigation to the Department of Justice which obliges polluters to pay for the clean-up.
All of this makes it difficult to assess the federal government’s commitment to controlling toxic waste, creating uncertainty for Puerto Ricans rebuilding in the wake of the recent hurricane.
Pete Lopez, the new head of EPA Region II, recognized the enormity of the task at hand and the sustained effort it requires. “In my experience, communities that are struggling financially will be the most urgent to respond,” he said. “There has to be a long-term commitment that not only includes commitment, but provides resources in a timely manner as needed. “