The paper trail exposing the poisoning of Puerto Rico is now becoming public, and the conclusions are clear: the EPA, the Puerto Rico authorities and most of the Commonwealth’s municipal landfills have been either cooperating or colluding to allow a massive, toxic, illegal business of dumping thousands of tons of unregulated trash into holes in the ground all over the island. And it has been going on, right under the public’s nose, for a decade or more. Increasing health threats emanating from these toxic sites such as the Zika virus, more than ever, mandate that we challenge the regulators to do their job.
Furthermore, the landfill crisis that EPA has allowed to unfold in Puerto Rico is unique. Such a situation, across so many toxic sites, would never be tolerated on the U.S. mainland. The communities where the landfills are located in Puerto Rico are mostly economically disadvantaged, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico does not enjoy the status of a U.S. state. The communities affected do not, therefore, have the same access to resources for protecting their rights as American citizens, nor do they have as much of a voice to express their concerns as better-off communities on the mainland. This makes the landfill crisis in Puerto Rico a clear case of environmental injustice. The EPA is not providing t protection to these communities that are enjoyed by more advantaged communities on the U.S. mainland.
The remaining questions that must be asked by the people of Puerto Rico, the environmental justice movement in the United States, and those responsible in the Obama Administration and the US Congress for policing the EPA are these:
Why has Region 2 administrator Judith Enck taken such a hands-off, tepid approach to the crisis despite repeated, glaring reports from her enforcements staff for a decade or more? Was EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy made aware of the landfill crisis in Puerto Rico? When, and to what extent?
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?
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 operate in violation of federal rules for decades? Has an assessment of hazardous waste dumping at these sites been conducted? Or were such investigations stymied internally?
When are the non-compliant landfills going to be brought up to minimum EPA standards or closed?
In addition to the volumes of violations of federal laws that have been documented in these files we’ve uncovered, were crimes committed? By whom? And if so, will there be justice?