Potential waste crisis looms in Puerto Rico following Maria as long-term solution is unclear

By Manuel Crespo Feliciano, Accuweather en Español staff writer
April 06, 2018, 11:27:27 AM EDT

A waste crisis looms for Puerto Rico as decades of neglect were brought into light following the passage of Hurricane Maria.

Every day about six and a half pounds of waste per person is produced in Puerto Rico, totaling four million tons per year. In addition, there are a total of 29 landfills in Puerto Rico, of which 13 have closure orders issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

This scenario has been even more visible with the passage of Hurricane Maria on the island.

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The Secretary of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA), Tania Vázquez Rivera, said that the agency she directs was not prepared to face the devastation caused by the passage of Hurricane Maria on the island.

"No one in Puerto Rico had lived [through] a hurricane of this magnitude. In other words, the preparation that we could have done, was never going to be enough to confront what we were going to find," said Vázquez.

Notwithstanding the fact that prior to the passage of the hurricane, the agency conducted a plan based on the cleaning of rivers, maintenance of pump houses, purchase of fuel to maintain facilities and the organization of team works, the efforts were not enough to face the crisis unleashed by the cyclone on Sept. 20, 2017.

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Long-term management of the situation

Looking ahead, Vázquez Rivera stressed that they are currently conducting a series of educational workshops, with the purpose of re-educating the population for future emergencies.

"We have already reached the end of the most powerful hurricanes that have passed through here, so now we must take all those lessons and make new plans," she added, making reference to the evaluation and restructuring process in which the agency she directs is going through.

In parallel, the proliferation of clandestine landfills, the establishment by municipalities of "temporary" landfills in places prone to flooding and the threat of the eventual closure of over 13 landfills that do not comply with the regulations established by the EPA, raises questions about what the long-term plan should be.


Although the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board (agency which is also directed by Tania Vázquez Rivera) has established as part of its strategies that over 6 million cubic yards of vegetative waste generated by the passage of the hurricane, be crushed and used as compost, there is still the big question about what will happen to the landfill situation.

Secretary of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA), Tania Vázquez Rivera quote

However, when reviewing the aforementioned government platform ("Plan para Puerto Rico"), page 68 is where the only reference is made to the management of solid waste on the island.

As noted by Vázquez, the government's approach is to implement "more aggressive plans" for recycling, but nothing is mentioned about the effective management of the landfill closure process.


EPA and the landfill situation in Puerto Rico

In a document published in 2016, the EPA, expresses its work to address the issue of landfills in Puerto Rico.

"It is not practical to immediately close most landfills in Puerto Rico. The strategy of the EPA and the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board has been to close first those that represent major threats to the environment and to the health of the people. With respect to EPA compliance agreements, the EPA has ordered that landfills that have reached full capacity stop receiving waste and close properly," reads one of the paragraphs of the document.

In addition, the document recognizes that the fiscal crisis that the island is going through is one of the biggest challenges that municipalities face when it comes to properly managing the issue of landfills.

"The central government of Puerto Rico faces a budgetary crisis that extends to the municipalities, which have always had limited funds to implement the environmental and engineering controls required to improve and, ultimately, close the landfills," adds the document.

Author's notes: This is the second part of a series of three reports on the issue of waste management in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. The next part on Thursday, April 12, 2018 explores the actions people are taking in the island in the face of a potential crisis of solid waste management.

This story was translated from an original AccuWeather en Español series "Una isla entre basura"; watch a report in Spanish below:

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