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Puerto Rico’s toxic dumps: Obama’s legacy, Pruitt’s opportunity

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Last month marked the end of eight years of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that many critics, especially Republicans, say spent its time, attention, and resources on donor-driven political causes while neglecting enforcement of basic environmental laws across the country. 

The critics are right. 

{mosads}The lead poisoning of the drinking water in Flint, Mich., is probably the most egregious example of this that comes to mind for most Americans. But in Puerto Rico, where I reside, more than 65 percent of landfills operate in violation of federal environmental laws, putting communities at risk and threatening to spark a public health disaster.

My organization, Puerto Rico Limpio, has uncovered a treasure trove of documents and official correspondence that confirm Obama’s EPA purposefully ignored the law even when their own experts called the crisis an “imminent threat to human health and the environment.”  Members of Congress from the former president’s own party questioned the EPA’s lack of enforcement, yet, for eight years, officials continued to prioritize recycling and composting over compliance with the law.

If you drive into the poorer communities of Puerto Rico, you will see the scourge of toxic landfills. For example, take the landfill in the working class municipality of Toa Baja, which services the wealthy communities of Dorado. According to our research, the Toa Baja landfill should have been shut down by September 2014.  But when visited by Congressman Luiz Gutierrez (D-IL) and Puerto Rico Limpio, it had expanded right up to residential houses, endangering the people who lived there.  Worse, we caught the landfill operator, ConWaste, hurrying to empty an illegal pond full of toxic sludge

This is too often the story of Puerto Rico’s landfills, and when confronted with damning information, EPA officials like interim Caribbean Director Carmen Guerrero simply make excuses, and blame the island’s financial crisis as a reason why the EPA cannot enforce federal law.

To make matters worse, opponents of dealing with the toxic landfills have complicated the issue by advancing bogus arguments designed to keep them in operation.

Some, like ConWaste, have promoted the narrative that Puerto Rico must accept noncompliant landfills because it does not have enough “compliant airspace” for all of the Island’s trash. This is not just logically absurd, it is also demonstrably false.  Puerto Rico has enough compliant landfill space not only to accommodate all of its own trash, but also that of the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well. 

But probably the worst example is the proposal by those that think it’s better to burn trash than clean up the toxic landfill sites. They have secured a $750 million grant from the U.S. Government for the development of a new incinerator in Arecibo, Puerto Rico now has its very own Solyndra in the works.

The EPA’s ineptitude has even prompted “concerns” from the bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Puerto Rico, which urged Congress late last year to “examine this issue … to determine whether there are additional steps that can and should be taken.” 

During the Senate confirmation process, the nominee for EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, in response to a question from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) on Puerto Rico’s landfills stated, he “expect(s) to make cleanup of contaminated land one of my priorities.”

Unfortunately for the residents of Puerto Rico, landfills are not a sexy environmental topic like climate change. Puerto Rico’s landfill crisis is not likely to prompt Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior to show up in the Port of San Juan. But solid waste management and modern, compliant landfills are an essential service every bit as vital for the Commonwealth’s economic recovery as its balance sheet.  If Puerto Rico is to grow again and return to the capital markets, then it must protect its environment and the health of its people. 

For Republicans, and EPA Administrator-designate Scott Pruitt, the situation in Puerto Rico presents an opportunity to get back to the core of what the EPA is supposed to do.  The EPA has the authority under the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to padlock the gates of toxic landfills today. 

Likewise, the EPA has access to money through the RCRA Corrective Action program, the RCRA Waste Management program, and the EPA “Superfund” to help with the process of cleaning contaminated sites.  This includes funds the Obama administration requested for prioritizing cleaning up “disadvantaged, overburdened and underserved communities” – precisely what we’ve faced in Puerto Rico.

Further, Puerto Rico’s landfills meet the definition of an “emergency” under Title V of PROMESA, and should be classified a critical infrastructure project.  EPA funds must be dedicated to a transition plan that starts with closures, advances clean up and repurposing of closed sites, and ends with full compliance. 

Recently, Puerto Rico elected a new governor, Ricardo Rosselló, on a promise to transform Puerto Rico and revive our economy.  He was also elected at a time when Congress has absolute control over the affairs of Puerto Rico.  Pruitt has an opportunity to show his detractors that, unlike Democrat environmental activists who care first and foremost about environmental politics, Republicans can actually solve the real world environmental problems facing our communities.  We are confident that, if the EPA does its part, Puerto Rico, led by Gov. Rosselló, will do its part in helping to right a wrong that has gone on for far too long, and end the terrible scourge of illegal, toxic dumps in Puerto Rico.

Hiram J. Torres Montalvo is an attorney based in San Juan, and a co-founder of the citizens’ action group, Puerto Rico Limpio (

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

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