Is Puerto Rico the next Flint?
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has faced growing crises in recent years resulting from poor oversight and enforcement of rules meant to protect the public. The common thread in many of them is the disadvantaged socioeconomic status of each community being threatened. The EPA claims environmental justice as a top priority and is seeking public comment on a 2020 environmental justice agenda.

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But the collapse of oversight and enforcement that led to the lead contamination of the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, was a wake-up call about how the agency is failing when all the laws, rules and plans have already been laid. An even larger crisis is erupting in Puerto Rico's solid waste landfills, but the EPA has still been notably silent about the scale of the threat there.

The poisoning of the drinking water in Flint was a crisis that unfolded over several years in a very poor city. The EPA is responsible for Safe Drinking Water Act compliance. Delegation of authority enables state or local officials to handle problems or questions, so after approving a plan by the State, the EPA delegated responsibility to Michigan. Those authorities switched the source of Flint's drinking water for cost reasons — and without hearings or approvals.

The EPA failed to listen to its own internal warnings, and glaringly failed to ensure enforcement of its own rules, something Administrator Gina McCarthyGina McCarthyTrump’s budget prioritizes polluters over people Trump pulls US out of Paris deal: What it would mean Regulations, farmers and the law MORE had to admit before a congressional hearing on the scandal.

The landfill crisis in Puerto Rico has been unfolding for decades. Most of the island's 27 landfills, in fact, have never installed the basic engineering elements required under Subtitle D of the federal Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The population of Puerto Rico is very poor, as is the economic outlook for the commonwealth. But Puerto Rico now faces monetary collapse and an exploding Zika virus epidemic. Things could get hideously worse, almost overnight.

The EPA is not responsible for monetary policy or epidemics, but it sets the rules for the 27 landfills that serve 78 municipalities in Puerto Rico today, which a majority of them simply ignore. Legal actions, reports, news photos and satellite pictures show huge piles of uncovered and unlined trash, entry of unsorted materials whose toxicity is never supervised, leachate that is poisoning communities and entering water systems, uncontrolled methane gas emissions and, in some cases, frequent fires. The EPA has "ordered" dumps closed but has never enforced its own orders, and now Puerto Rico's next crisis breeds in the landfills.

Local residents have told the activist group Puerto Rico Limpio that uncontrolled standing water at the noncompliant open dumps is breeding millions of mosquitos at a time when mosquito-borne Zika infection is expanding on the island. Puerto Rican authorities announced last Friday that the number of Zika cases went up to 7,296, with 1,700 of them reported over the course of a single week in July. With 20 noncompliant sites spread out into every region, logic might seem to demand immediate action to eliminate such a major threat to a widespread population. When combined with the mountain of evidence of leachate pollution in rivers, marine resources and groundwater, there is an overwhelming case for urgent intervention.

Yet, the Flint comparisons are foreboding. The EPA delegated landfill regulation authority to Puerto Rico's Environmental Quality Board (EQB) in 1994, which promised to close most of the landfills at the time and bring the rest into compliance. But since then, only three landfills have been closed while many have been greatly expanded, but rarely in compliance. Puerto Rico has not lived up to its promises; nor has the EPA.

The EPA is not powerless; Section 7003 of RCRA authorizes it to take legal actions to remedy "imminent and substantial endangerment of health or the environment," which is clearly happening. If it is promoting an environmental justice agenda, the agency should live by the saying "never waste a crisis." Bold action in Puerto Rico would send a clear signal that the EPA means what it says about environmental justice, and getting out in front of the issue would contrast with the way Flint was handled.

Direct intervention by the EPA, where it seizes the initiative to lead a comprehensive emergency solid waste reform in Puerto Rico, is already in the agency's power. There is more than enough landfill airspace at the compliant landfills to accept and safely deposit the island's trash today. Ordering the immediate and safe closing of most or all of the rest of the sites would put a decisive end to the backward business model for landfills in Puerto Rico today, where open dumps charge below-market fees to throw unsorted trash in a hole in the ground.

Recycling in Puerto Rico, which is an abominable 7 percent today, would become economically viable for the first time. Closed dumps could be repurposed as transfer stations where the waste stream is reduced, reused, recycled or redirected to the remaining, compliant sites. As Puerto Rico also faces an antiquated and dirty energy generation system, clean energy production could be incentivized through the leasing of closed sites to build solar and wind generation plants in partnership between municipalities and the private sector. This is only a sampling of ideas that could emerge.

In Puerto Rico, many live below the poverty line and have been leaving; there are neither jobs nor "extra" money to initiate changes. But the federal government recently imposed a control board to manage the commonwealth's finances, and a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling reaffirmed the supremacy of the U.S. Congress over Puerto Rico's legislature. The U.S. mainland faces direct threat of the Zika epidemic migrating from Puerto Rico, and the first infections from mosquitos in Florida have been reported in the last week. This is already Washington's problem. It's time for the EPA to take the first step, and with the boldness that was absent in Flint.

Dr. Rafuse is a principal at the Rafuse Organization and a former White House energy adviser.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.