Puerto Rico Limpio investigates toxic landfill that EPA promised to close in 2014 but it is still open and expanding
(TOA BAJA, Puerto Rico – July 13, 2016) Another municipal landfill has been discovered to be operating in Puerto Rico in clear violation of federal laws to protect public health and the environment, despite federal orders to close over a year ago, according to the citizen action group Puerto Rico Limpio.
The revelations came to light despite a consent decree issued in 2009, through which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) promised the landfill would “stop receiving waste deposits by June 30, 2010”, and a subsequent order that the landfill would close by December 31, 2014.
The EPA had declared in 2009 that the Toa Baja landfill demonstrated “substantial deficiencies that presented potential threats to people’s health and the environment. These deficiencies include: potentially unstable slopes, leachate (toxic liquids produced in the garbage pile) leaking off site, insufficient storm water controls, and inadequate security measures.”
But an investigative visit by Puerto Rico Limpio on July 12 found that the landfill in Toa Baja has been allowed to ignore the orders and is still in full operation. The group documented in videos and photographs that the landfill is not only showing signs of preparing to close, but it has illegally expanded to an unlined trash cell, where unsorted garbage is being dumped directly into the ground, and leachates from the trash pile are discharging into an unlined lakebed in direct contact with soil and groundwater.
“There was contamination and federal rule violations everywhere we looked,” said Puerto Rico Limpio co-founder Hiram Torres Montalvo, who led the investigative visit. “The smell was very bad, and the amount of toxic liquids collecting on the ground was bigger than I expected.”
“This is not a landfill that is even contemplating a closure,” he said. “They have illegally expanded into a new, non-compliant cell and have dug new paths to unused areas. They clearly intend to expand the contamination and keep operating indefinitely.”
Torres Montalvo said his investigation of Toa Baja’s operations found that it is one of the largest municipal landfills operating in Puerto Rico, taking in over 1,000 tons of trash per day and collecting as much as one million dollars or more in tipping fees per month. “A huge illegal operation is going on here, and the EPA is not enforcing its own orders or its own rules.”
The team said there was evidence that the landfill had built storm water channels over inactive cells in compliance with some of the EPA consent decree in 2009, and installed at least one methane gas monitor system in a closed cell. However, the active trash cell and the expansion work was all in clear violation of the law, showing that EPA’s enforcement action was only on paper and being ignored by the landfill operator.
“Whatever the EPA was doing in Toa Baja was brief, and it ended years ago,” Torres Montalvo noted. “This is an open dump, not a compliant landfill.”
TOXIC LAKE DISCOVERED
The Puerto Rico Limpio team entered the landfill without any security personnel present at the entrance, Torres Montalvo said, and were also able to gain access through an incomplete fence on the side of the facility, about 25 feet from a row of residential homes.
The team recorded a video from the irregular entrance which showed a large leachate lake at the foot of the active cell. “There was an unlined leachate lake they created next to the trash pile, with a pipe system built by the landfill to discharge the leachates from the trash pile directly onto the ground,” Torres Montalvo said.
“There was nothing protecting the groundwater from this toxic lake they built,” he added. “It was not at capacity because we are in a dry season, but it was built to allow a lot of toxic liquids to collect on the open ground.”
RESIDENT COMPLAINS OF MOSQUITOS, ZIKA FEARS
The investigative team interviewed a resident next to the landfill, who asked not to use his name. The man, who has lived in the same home for 40 years, told Puerto Rico Limpio that the landfill has grown immensely since he arrived.
“It has grown right up to our neighborhood,” the resident said. “Before, it was a mountain covered in trees, but they knocked that down to put up this mountain of trash.”
“The mosquitos are terrible from the landfill,” the man told the team. “You can’t even go out at night because of them. There is a lot of dengue, and I’m worried about Zika now. They have been talking about closing the landfill for a long time, but they haven’t done anything.”
Torres Montalvo said the EPA is ultimately responsible for the public threats posed by the landfill.
“If the EPA refuses to enforce its own orders and its own rules, then they are complicit in all of the damage being done to the community in Toa Baja,” Torres Montalvo said. “This landfill has become an enormous, illegal operation and the EPA hasn’t followed through on any of its promises to close it.”