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Puerto Rico Gets Coal, Diesel, and Debris for Christmas

Instead of colorful lights, this holiday season in Puerto Rico will be marked by darkness and pollution. Is the EPA doing enough?

Mario Tama/Getty

Puerto Rico is said to have one of the longest, most festive holiday seasons in the world. Not this year. Since Hurricane Maria pummeled the island in September, there’s been barely enough power for air conditioning; Christmas lights are out of the question. With 70 percent of the electric grid still broken, the island remains deeply trapped in the biggest and now longest blackout in U.S. history. And the bad news keeps coming: The latest disaster aid bill in the House of Representative contains no provision to help Puerto Rico’s Medicaid programs. The tax bill passed by the House on Tuesday contains huge tax hikes for companies operating on the island. And after The New York Times reported that far more people died from the hurricane than originally thought—perhaps more than 1,000, versus the official toll of 64—Governor Ricardo Rosselló on Monday ordered a review of official deaths.

Meanwhile, a public health and pollution crisis is still unfolding. A 15-page draft report on the island’s post-hurricane environmental situation—prepared by members of Puerto Rico’s National Association of Environmental Law and the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, and provided to The New Republic—details multiple concerns: Contaminated drinking water remains a problem for potentially millions of people. The proliferation of diesel generators across the island are spewing air pollution and threatening to exacerbate respiratory health conditions. A five-story pile of heavy-metal-laden coal ash next to a community of 45,000 was left uncovered during the storm, and photos purport to show the waste mountain has eroded. That ash could be in nearby soil, groundwater, drinking water sources—no one really knows.

These are not your average hurricane-related environmental problems. While big storms in urban areas always create pollution, Puerto Rico’s situation is unique. The island has suffered environmental damage and neglect for decades, from drinking water contamination to pollution from overfilling landfills. And a disproportionate number of Puerto Ricans live in poverty, making them more vulnerable to pollution. “This is the result of an ongoing problem of environmental injustice on the island,” said Verónica González Rodríguez, one of the report’s authors. “We are trying to call attention to that.” They’re beginning to succeed in that respect: The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights pledged to investigate human rights violations in Puerto Rico after a more expansive version of the report, detailing additional types of crises, was presented to them earlier this month.

While a future investigation into Puerto Rico by an international human rights group is welcome, it won’t do much to remedy the public health problems facing the island right now. What, exactly, is being done to remedy Puerto Rico’s environmental crisis? Will the big polluters be punished, and when will citizens get relief?

Ruth Santiago, one of the report’s authors, is intimately familiar with the island’s environmental problems. In the southern city of Salinas, where she lives and works as a environmental activist, large electricity generators whir at all hours, powering her neighbors’ refrigerators and fans. “The fumes emitted by these generators are nothing less than noxious, and the noise is unbearable, making sleep very difficult,” she wrote recently. “At night, I battle the noise of the emergency generators by listening to the radio. I also wear a face mask, to cover my nose and mouth, as a way to combat the fumes somewhat.”

She’s not the only one who needs a facemask. Puerto Rico has become known as “Generator Island” since the loss of the vast majority of the electric grid, as diesel and gas generators have become one of the only options for reliable power. In October, the Times noted that the generators are “raising health and safety concerns,” since they can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. But three months of widespread, ongoing diesel generator use presents a different problem: Diesel exhaust, which “contains more than 40 toxic air contaminants, including many known or suspected cancer-causing substances, such as benzene, arsenic, and formaldehyde,” according to one study. That study also notes that “up to 70 percent of cancer risk attributable to inhalation of toxic air pollutants in the United States arise from diesel exhaust.” In October, FEMA warned Puerto Ricans using generators to protect themselves against fire, electrocution, and carbon monoxide poisoning, but didn’t mention air pollution.

The diesel emissions problem allegedly has been exacerbated by failures of both the Puerto Rican and federal governments. “Experts agreed that these health impacts have been exacerbated by the government’s lack of foresight in this situation, its improvised response, lack of coordination and education among the agencies, lack of education on the subject and insufficient personnel to attend to the citizen complaints [of noxious fumes],” the report reads, translated from Spanish. “In addition, the air quality monitoring system of the federal Environmental Protection Agency has not worked since the hurricane, so it is difficult to know the environmental and health impacts of these generators and other sources of increase in contamination.” An EPA spokesperson did not return a request to confirm the state of its air quality monitors.

The EPA also did not respond to a request to clarify the status of the five-story coal ash mountain in Guayama, a southern city of 45,000 people. In October, a spokesperson told The New Republic that the agency “heard from AES representatives that their facility suffered minor damages but that the coal ash pile was not affected by Hurricane Maria’s winds and waters.” But La Perla del Sur, a newspaper based in southern Puerto Rico, reports that the storm “eroded,” “weathered,” and “cracked” the pile. “I would like to know if AES has done any study where they can demonstrate that nearby communities in Guayama and [the nearby city of] Salinas did not receive ashes,” Alvarado Guzmán, a spokesperson for a local environmental group, told the paper. AES did not respond to a request for comment.

AES was reportedly hit with a $75,000 fine from the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board for failing to secure and cover its waste pile before Hurricane Maria hit. Still, it’s unclear whether AES will be forced to prove its waste didn’t seep into nearby communities—and if it did, whether the EPA would fine them further. Rodriguez is not optimistic. “The EPA historically has been more flexible in enforcing rules on the island than it is on the mainland,” she said.

The EPA isn’t sitting on its hands, but there’s still quite a lot to do. According to the agency, approximately 157 employees are on the ground dealing mostly with the vast amount of debris and hazardous material that the hurricane’s 150-mph winds created. “Hurricanes Irma and Maria generated enough debris to fill Yankee stadium seven times,” the agency said in a statement on Monday. “EPA is assisting with the management of this debris, including the handling and disposal of household hazardous waste, oil, chemical, medical, and electronic wastes.” Puerto Rico being an island, there are submerged and damaged ships to recover and clear out, which EPA employees are helping with. Last week, the agency touted its partnerships with various non-governmental organizations to restore drinking water to small communities.

But on an island that has been suffering from pollution problems for decades, a traditional response is not enough. In any other location, the EPA’s job after a hurricane would be to restore the area back to its pre-storm conditions. Pre-storm conditions in Puerto Rico were abysmal: 67 percent of its water systems suffered from contamination; Guayama residents complained of toxic dust blowing from the coal ash pile; and 98 percent of its electricity came from fossil fuels. The recovery effort must focus not only on cleaning up Maria’s mess, but the one decades in the making. Otherwise this cycle will keep repeating itself, because another Maria could be just a few years away.