The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took little action despite documenting more than a decade of severe violations of federal landfill safety rules in Puerto Rico, and allowed most of the island’s municipal landfills to operate as “open dumps”, contaminating soil, water and air in violation of federal law.
These facts are exposed by a trail of EPA documents and communications obtained here by Puerto Rico Limpio through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and made public exclusively in this report.
The documents show that over two decades, EPA staff documented a state of regulatory chaos where meetings and communications took place with Puerto Rico’s governor, senior officials, its Environmental Quality Board (EQB), municipal leaders and landfill operators, and agreements were routinely broken, ignored, refused or stonewalled. In the end, no effective enforcement has ever happened in Puerto Rico, and EPA didn’t effectively respond.
The Gross Malfeasance of the EQB
EPA files dating back to 1994 shows that Puerto Rico proposed an elaborate plan to create a fully compliant, safe and sustainable solid waste management system on the island when the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board (EQB) applied to the EPA for local enforcement authority. But as the years went on, the EPA documents show that the EQB’s promises in its application were never carried out.
The documents show that the 1994 plan submitted by EQB called for expanded enforcement personnel, but the EPA stood by as the local authorities systematically eliminated key landfill enforcement staff right under its nose during a key period: from 14 staffers in 2000, to 5 in 2005, to 1 in 2010 and eventually none in 2012.
Worse still, the EPA discovered in 2005 that shortly after local authority was granted, the EQB gutted key local landfill rules, taking them below federal standards without notifying the federal agency as required by law. Despite initial high level warnings from EPA Region 2 to the then-governor of Puerto Rico, the EQB dragged its feet in replying. After Judith Enck took over as administrator of Region 2, the records indicate high-level engagement with Puerto Rico’s authorities ceased.
The Dereliction of Duty by the EPA
But relative to the enormity of the problem documented by EPA Region 2 enforcement staff, the regional leadership did not take decisive action to revoke the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board’s (EQB) enforcement authority and directly enforce federal laws at Puerto Rico’s landfills.
In fact, under current Regional Administrator Judith Enck, a specific recommendation by enforcement staff to revoke the EQB’s authority and directly enforce federal standards was made in the face of the landfill crisis presenting “an imminent and substantial threat to human health and the environment”. But Enck ignored the recommendation and eased the pressure on local authorities. In turn, the communities around as many as two dozen landfills have likely been exposed to contamination of groundwater, shorelines, rivers, marine resources, protected wetlands and nature reserves, while the EPA recorded internal reports of years of violations of the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
The sequence of internal EPA assessments from 2005 to 2014 show a repeated failure to shake up a landfill system in crisis on the island. Most of the landfills are repeatedly documented by EPA as being in “significant”, “serious” or “widespread” non-compliance, and are characterized as “open dumps”. Despite files that acknowledge decades of violations that threatened public health and environmental safety, the EPA is documented as using its unilateral intervention authority under Section 7003 over two decades only against less than half of the non-compliant landfills. The result of EPA’s dereliction of its federal responsibility is that most of Puerto Rico’s 27 current landfills that are described in EPA’s own files as “unlined open dumps” – often in environmentally sensitive regions – and are still operating today.
Many of the areas impacted in Puerto Rico are lower income or impoverished with residents that do not have the same access to legal protections as wealthier communities. Such neglect constitutes a form of environmental injustice, where disadvantaged American communities in Puerto Rico receive less federal protection than others do on the mainland.
The report raises a number of alarming questions about why the EPA’s actions were so neglectful in protecting Puerto Rico’s communities:
Why has EPA’s current Region 2 administrator, Judith Enck taken such a tepid approach to the crisis despite repeated, glaring assessments for her entire term in office? Was EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy made aware of the landfill crisis? When, and to what extent?
Has the EPA or the Puerto Rico government conducted environmental testing or assessments of the extent of water, air and ground contamination around landfill sites that have been allowed to violated safety rules for decades? Or were such investigations stymied internally?
What will a thorough review of the document trail inside the EQB, and between the EQB and the landfills, reveal about the 1997 gutting of local regulations? Were there financial interests in Puerto Rico directly involved that went beyond the municipalities themselves?
With so many landfills not even sorting or supervising the incoming trash at these sites, how bad has illegal dumping of hazardous waste gotten in Puerto Rico under EPA’s watch?
Are the non-compliant landfills also violating the federal Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act?
And will further digging uncover crimes that were committed by individuals, companies and public officials and workers?