EPA Acknowledges Puerto Rico’s Landfills Unsafe and Should Close; But More Progress Needed from EPA

Today, Peter Lopez, the new regional administrator for Region 2 of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) testified before the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He got some things right; but Mr. Lopez still expressed views that ought to be corrected for the record.

To start, Mr. Lopez acknowledged that some of Puerto Rico’s landfills “are unsafe” and expressed the need to “close them down.” That’s significant progress, and light-years ahead of the Obama Administration’s policy of doing nothing.

Mr. Lopez also acknowledged that 13 landfills “have orders against [them] because they are potentially contaminating groundwater – there could be hazards with the community.” That’s only half-right, the use of the word “potentially” must have been accidental. A 2011 study of the Karst Aquifer by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), analyzed a number of landfills that sit atop the vital potable water source and concluded there was significant groundwater contamination around the aquifer. For example, the Vega Baja landfill has been contaminated with “chlorinated solvents, including: TCE, Dichloroethane, Chloroform, Carbon tetrachloride, tetrachloroethene, tetrachloroethane, and dichloroethane, and methylene chloride.”

Mr. Lopez also discussed the need for funding landfill closure, and openly stated that “how we drive funding towards the island, which the island will control, to put in secure landfills…” suggests funding is not available for closure. That’s concerning. Congress recently earmarked $2 billion in Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) to help Puerto Rico rebuild after the storm – up to $160 million of which can be used to close these toxic landfills. Now the EPA must support these monies be used only for closure.

Mr. Lopez also stated that the “ultimate responsibility lies with the Commonwealth.” That’s half-right. Certainly successive Puerto Rican Government’s failed to close the island’s non-compliant landfills, but Governor Rosselló has since called the landfills a “crisis” and has urged their closure. Certainly, the EPA is not suggesting it somehow lacks the power to close landfills when their legal authority to do so rests so clearly under Section 7003 of RCRA (42 U.S.C. §6973).

“Puerto Rico Limpio applauds Mr. Lopez for acknowledging that unsafe landfills need to close,” said Hiram J. Torres Montalvo, co-founder of Puerto Rico Limpio. “This is significant progress, and a departure from the Obama Administration’s policy of turning a blind eye. We urge the EPA to support the use of the Community Development Block Grants authorized in the 2018 Budget Agreement to close these toxic landfills; not to keep them open so they can keep polluting and poisoning our communities.”

Torres Montalvo added, “We appreciate our Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón for raising this important issue, and demanding answers on behalf of all Puerto Ricans.”

To learn more about Puerto Rico Limpio, its mission and important information about dangerous, non-compliant landfills, go to: PuertoRicoLimpio.org, Puerto Rico Limpio on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter: @PRLimpioOrg.