Environmental Disaster Waiting to Explode in Puerto Rico

Aug 8, 2016
12:43 PM
Shaded relief map of Puerto Rico (U.S. Geological Survey)

Shaded relief map of Puerto Rico (U.S. Geological Survey)


Environmental injustice runs rampant on the island of Puerto Rico. Amidst the debt crisis, buried within the enchanted island is a dirty little secret, a toxic brew of waste in unregulated landfills, spewing methane gas, waiting to explode. This type of toxicity destroying our environment is the shocking result of our continued abuse and disrespect of natural resources and poor, minority communities that need them to thrive. When government agencies on both the local and federal level are aware of severe environmental degradation and continue to ignore the dangers, essentially abandoning the people, there is more to be discussed than just their legal duty, but their moral and ethical obligation to protect our rights as humans.

As citizens of the United States, we expect to live in a clean and healthy environment. We walk through life worry-free by taking our health and safety for granted by expecting our government to create and enforce environmental laws. We blindly trust that the government always has everything under control and will not allow danger to occur in our backyards. However, after the Flint, Michigan, drinking water crisis, more and more Americans began to question their trust towards local, state and federal government. Every day, millions continue to wake up to the fact, that we are not immune from environmental hazards. What happened in Flint was due to both the local and federal government failing to prevent a public health danger when they knew of the lead contaminating the drinking water.

A similar hazardous situation is occurring in Puerto Rico with the continued lack of government enforcement and financial resources to remediate and clean up the toxic landfills. On the island of Puerto Rico, 20 out of the 27 landfills are considered illegal dumps violating required federal regulations. These dumps have not been shut down by the Puerto Rico’s Environmental Quality Board (EQB) or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They are still open, still collecting uncovered trash, still unlined, without the proper leachate protection, causing the waste-filled contaminated liquid to enter the soil and water systems. These soil and water resources are what the people depend on for survival. The landfills located within these communities are explosive hazards, which will continue to cause fires, due to the gas emissions being uncontrolled and potentially migrating above ground and underground, exposing people to toxic particles in the air, water and ground.

Unfortunately, it is not surprising that Flint and Puerto Rico are largely poor, minority communities. In an overwhelmingly majority of cases, white affluent neighborhoods are less likely to be exposed to environmental threats. The EPA has known about these hazards throughout Puerto Rico’s communities as early as 1994, when authority was first delegated to the EQB with the return promise of closing most of the illegal landfills, while bringing the others into compliance. The EQB clearly failed to do this. The EPA over the years exercised its enforcement authority but without any teeth, simply sending paper orders to landfills to close or come into compliance. Even though the EPA has authority to take legal action to remedy an “imminent and substantial endangerment of health or the environment,” this federal agency has decided to turn a blind eye. Both the EPA and EPQ’s inaction on these toxic landfills puts the safety of the American citizens of Puerto Rico at risk of environmental contamination.

In mid-June of this year, Puerto Rico’s champion in the Congress, Democratic Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez, and environmental organizations “Puerto Rico Limpio” and “Green Latinos” held a congressional briefing demanding EPA enforcement action on the regulatory violations of these toxic dumps. These efforts were also surprisingly supported by a Republican U.S. Congressman from Florida, Dennis Ross, therefore consolidating it as bipartisan issue.

We the people need to follow their lead and begin organizing local grassroots movement and social media campaigns across the 50 states demanding immediate action by the EPA in order to protect the environmental, health and safety of the people of Puerto Rico. Along with the billions of dollars to be spent in environmental cleanup and remediation, similar astronomical costs will be spent on health care, for monitoring and treatment of the communities impacted. This creates a domino effect which proliferates wasting taxpayer dollars due to man-made disasters that could have been prevented if it were not for our government’s negligent inaction.

Environmental justice encompasses the principles of civil rights and environmental protection, requiring that all people benefit from the environment and are equally protected from environmental harms. What Puerto Rico is experiencing is an environmental injustice due to irrefutable and substantial disproportionate impacts of environmental harms. The people on the island are underserved, unrepresented and marginalized. The 3.5 million American citizens in Puerto Rico have no voting representation in Congress and cannot vote for President either, therefore muting their voices and their ability to pressure the federal government for viable and adequate environmental solutions. If action is not immediately taken, we will again experience a Flint-like health crisis putting the lives of millions of American citizens in Puerto Rico at risk.

If we continue down this perilous course of ignoring the negative environmental impacts on minority communities caused by failing to prioritize the importance of our environment, there shall be no world left for our future generations. The people of Puerto Rico are entitled to equal treatment and environmental equity. Its last resort is the EPA.

So the question remains: Will the EPA ultimately decide to do the right thing, and fulfill their moral, ethical and legal obligations?


Josephine Balzac is an environmental attorney, Visiting Assistant Professor at Rollins College and an adjunct professor at Barry University School of Law teaching Sustainability in Business. She tweets from @JosiebGreen.