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Puerto Rico is slipping into an environmental crisis

And the best agency to fix it, the EPA, is facing big budget and staff cuts.

People fill bottles with water provided at a pump by water authorities on October 15, 2017, in Dorado, Puerto Rico. A CNN team found that contaminated water from a federally designated Superfund site at Dorado was being distributed at the pumping station on October 13. 
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Five weeks after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, the island appears to be in the midst of a growing environmental catastrophe.

One in four Puerto Ricans still lack access to reliable clean water. Some people whose water service hadn’t been restored were last week reportedly dragging bottles and barrels through holes in chain-link fences to siphon water from wells that may be infused with toxic waste from a nearby Superfund site.

There have also been reports of water 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 care workers on the ground are increasingly concerned about additional outbreaks of water-borne illnesses. Landfills are at capacity, according to CNN.

And as Vox’s Alexia Fernández Campbell reported, the water situation on Puerto Rico may be worse than the government is letting on, with pumping stations powered by intermittent generators and limited fuels for people to boil water.

The environmental health, waste, and pollution crises are not simply a result of the storm — instead they’re a direct result of the island’s long-running energy crisis and financial crisis.

After Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, millions of Americans have found out the hard way how close they are to toxic waste and how easily they can be exposed as harmful chemicals that leech into floodwaters and wash through homes. But for a dense, poor, and remote place like Puerto Rico, the hazards are all the more severe.

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, is facing an uncertain future with looming staff and budget cuts.

At the same time, Scott Pruitt, who leads the EPA, is firmly entrenched on the side of industry, 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 consultant on hazardous waste who worked at EPA under the Reagan Administration.

For Puerto Rico, which is facing acute toxic waste concerns due to damaged infrastructure, this uncertainty may hamper immediate cleanup efforts and undermine long-term environmental remediation work on the island needed to protect people’s health.

EPA has a major disaster relief role in Puerto Rico

We don’t typically think of the EPA as an emergency responder, but the agency takes charge during oil spills, chemical leaks, and large-scale disasters, while also providing backup to first-responders on the ground.

Outside of extreme events, the agency administers the cleanup of some of the most polluted sites in the country under the Superfund program.

This is a federal initiative to pay for the remediation of highly contaminated sites in the United States, established as part of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980.

The law allows EPA to go after polluters to clean up their waste, and in cases where the responsible party is can’t be found or is insolvent, it authorizes a “superfund” to pay for hazardous waste control.

EPA currently counts 1,342 sites on its National Priorities List for the Superfund, each one posing a unique challenge and risk. (The EPA has a site where you can find the ones 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 were getting their water.

A map of Superfund sites in Puerto Rico.
ESRI, NOAA, US Geological Survey, EPA

The site is part of a drinking water system that serves 67,000 people. Officials detected carcinogens tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene there in the 1980s, and, in 2016, it was added to EPA’s Federal Superfund List of the most contaminated sites in the United States.

As the Dorado site illustrates, many people in Puerto Rico’s dense cities live close to hazardous waste, and power outages and containment damage after storms like Maria increase the likelihood of people becoming exposed.

And Puerto Rico faces some 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 the EPA’s Region II, which includes Puerto Rico.

“They are all quite serious,” she said.

The conditions on Vieques, an island off the coast of Puerto Rico that is home to 9,000 people, are particularly concerning. Before the storm, it was used as a Navy bombing range for 60 years and was littered with unexploded ordinance. Then came Maria.

“The major question is how many of these munitions washed into the sea,” Enck said.

Puerto Rico was also facing a landfill crisis before Maria, with 19 of the 29 landfill sites on the island in violation of federal law, piling up with garbage and bathing nearby communities in a putrid stench.

The landfill situation has only become worse as Puerto Ricans look to throw away damaged and waterlogged debris.

All the while, Puerto Rico’s island geography means that waste management equipment has to be shipped in, increasing cleanup costs compared to sites on the US mainland and feeding into a bottleneck of relief supplies.

Federal officials are sending mixed messages on waste cleanup

EPA now has its work cut out for itself on Puerto Rico. The agency currently has 125 personnel on the ground on the island with a priority of restoring clean drinking water to residents.

Workers are taking measurements and monitoring sites to see if the toxic patches have moved and are desperately trying to grapple with the scale of the environmental cleanup challenge that lies ahead.

The agency’s leadership, however, has sent some mixed signals about how it prioritizes environmental cleanup.

EPA Administrator Pruitt is undoing the agency’s work on air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, fulfilling a fossil fuel industry wish list. Pruitt is also backing major budget cuts and is aiming to reduce the agency’s headcount.

However, he’s also pledged support for Superfund cleanup, which makes sense given that there are Superfund sites all over the country, including coal, oil, and gas-producing regions.

“Superfund is the one program Administrator Pruitt is not trying to obliterate,” said Enck.

But then, Pruitt has also proposed cutting funds for Superfund litigation at the Department of Justice that gets polluters to pay for cleanup.

All this makes it hard to gauge 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 newly appointed head of EPA Region II, acknowledged the enormity of the task ahead and sustained effort it requires. “From my experience, communities that are struggling financially are going to be the hardest pressed to respond,” he said. “There has to be a long-term commitment which not only includes engagement but provides timely resources as needed.”

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