Unenforced Orders, Worthless Consent Decrees and No Fines for Lawbreakers
(SAN JUAN, P.R. – April 27, 2017) Puerto Rico Limpio released a new report today after a painstaking investigation of EPA documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which belie the Agency’s public claims of great progress towards closing 12 toxic, non-compliant municipal landfills in Puerto Rico. The report reveals that, in fact, the EPA has known that 19 out of the island’s 29 landfills are illegal open dumps, and continue to operate despite openly violating federal law.
“The report reveals yet more evidence of criminal neglect by the EPA,” said Hiram J. Torres Montalvo, co-founder of Puerto Rico Limpio. “Recent actions in Toa Alta and Santa Isabel are simply an elaborate cover-up by the EPA to hide 8 years of bureaucratic ineptness and criminal negligence.”
The new report, entitled “How the EPA Continues to Poison Puerto Rico”, had a number of key findings based on EPA documents and other evidence posted online with the report today:
No evidence was found that any of the still-open landfills “facing action” or consent decrees have been brought into compliance over the last decade. In fact, all of them continue to break federal laws and continue to pose an imminent threat to the environment and to the public.
A letter in 2011 from the Obama Administration to the EQB under Governor Luis Fortuño warned against being too hasty in closing toxic landfills, making lighter enforcement a policy of the EPA.
In the list of 12 landfills “under EPA action,” the EPA was found to have systematically failed to follow through, letting deadlines pass repeatedly, allowing operators to ignore benchmarks and endlessly postpone even minimal improvements.
The EPA knew of the environmental harm and persistent threat for years even while issuing consent decrees and administrative orders, and never immediately suspended operations at any landfill despite the danger. The most recent example was the administrative order issued against Toa Alta landfill on April 11 of this year, which detailed extreme violations of RCRA and multiple iterations of the “imminent endangerment to human health and the environment” but allowed the landfill to continue receiving and dumping waste in unlined cells through the end of the year.
“Recent comments by certain individuals claiming they do not have the regulatory authority to close, that a lock won’t work, a transfer station cannot be built or the fiscal situation prevents closure, is simply perpetuating an environmental crime against their fellow citizens,” said Torres Montalvo.
In a joint letter to the EPA and Puerto Rican DNRA, Puerto Rico Limpio tells Pruitt and Vázquez Rivera that administrative orders and court filings are not enough
(SAN JUAN, P.R. – April 19, 2017) Today, Puerto Rico Limpio released a joint letter it sent to Administrator Scott Pruitt of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Secretary Tania Vázquez Rivera of the Puerto Rican Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNRA) asking them to use existing authority to immediately close all of Puerto Rico’s toxic municipal landfills.
Torres Montalvo reminded the officials that “in a letter to Puerto Rico Limpio late last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) acknowledged that 19 of the island’s 29 landfills do not even meet the most basic federal requirements, making them illegal open dumps.” However, he noted, “only 12 of those landfills are under any form of action to close and none of them have been fully enforced yet. The result has been an environmental disaster across the island that continues to this day.”
“Recent actions taken by the EPA in Toa Alta and Santa Isabel are simply window dressing aimed at appeasing Puerto Rico Limpio and Congressional investigators. They are fake closures and judicial actions,” wrote Torres Montalvo.
The letter urged Pruitt and Vázquez Rivera to “work together to use your authority and close all of Puerto Rico’s toxic landfills immediately. Administrative orders and court filings have been filed and ignored for over a decade with no consequences,” Torres Montalvo wrote. “Additional paperwork is not the answer; putting a lock on the gates of Puerto Rico’s toxic landfills is,” he concluded.
To read the letter Puerto Rico Limpio sent to Administrator Pruitt and Secretary Vázquez Rivera, click here.
Puerto Rico’s leading newspaper, El Nuevo Dia, published an op-ed today by Puerto Rico Limpio co-founder Hiram Torres Montalvo in which he labeled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s announcement of closure at the toxic landfill in Toa Alta “fake news.”
The truth, he wrote, is that Toa Alta will remain open, still receiving waste and still posing an imminent threat to the public and the environment. One thing is clear: the EPA and the Government of Puerto Rico have not used their authority to close any of the more than 70% of the Island’s landfills that are open and operating today, which violate the law and threaten our communities.
EL NUEVO DIA: …“The EPA claimed this order was shutting down the landfill and stopping them from accepting waste. But this was fake news. The action by the EPA did neither, and in fact, Toa Alta can continue to operate.”
… “The EPA estimates that up to 30,000 children and elderly living in Toa Alta face a heightened imminent danger to their health right now.”
…“The time for excuses is over. We can no longer blame former administrations for today’s mistakes. We can no longer simply go to Washington to ask for more Medicaid monies and promote statehood. The U.S. Congress and the Financial Oversight Board have spoken, and both want to see closure.”
To read the full article in El Nuevo Dia, click here.
Garcia Padilla allowed Toa Alta to operate without permit from Environmental Quality Board; Puerto Rico Limpio Renews Calls for U.S. EPA and Governor Rosselló to lock the gates and shut toxic landfill down
(TOA ALTA, P.R. – April 12, 2017) – Puerto Rico Limpio condemned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for allowing the toxic Toa Alta landfill to remain open and operating despite documenting extensive criminal acts and the poisoning of Puerto Rico’s aquifers.
“The EPA has given a green light to Toa Alta to continue breaking the law,” said Hiram J. Torres Montalvo, co-founder of Puerto Rico Limpio. “This is sheer incompetence by EPA Region 2 and Caribbean director Carmen Guerrero. The EPA can close Toa Alta today, but they refuse to do it.”
The 53-page Administrative Order by the U.S. EPA revealed extensive details on how the EPA has known about the illegal conditions at Toa Alta landfill since 2004, but failed to use their authority to shut it down. Further, the EPA report reveals that former Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla allowed the landfill to continue operating without an EQB permit. Unfortunately, the administration of Governor Rosselló appears to be following the footsteps of Garcia Padilla by not requiring a permit from Toa Alta, either.
The EPA findings are frightening:
Toa Alta landfill is operating without a permit from the Government of Puerto Rico, and is classified as an “open dump” which is prohibited to operate under federal law.
The landfill has no liner to protect groundwater from contamination and no controls on gas emissions which pose a threat of explosion and contain cancer-causing materials.
With no inspection of waste entering the landfill, the EPA estimates about 30 million tons of hazardous household waste is currently in the ground and leaching toxic materials into the environment.
Toa Alta generates about 4 million gallons of toxic leachates per year, which it discharges illegally into large ponds over unlined sinkholes, into the North Coast Limestone Aquifer, into the Rio de la Plata and tributaries, and threatens at least 16 PRASA and USGS water sources.
The landfill has standing water which breeds mosquitos that can carry the Zika virus, and threatens more than 100 homes and businesses within mosquito flight range.
The trash piles are so steep that EPA officials deemed some of them too dangerous to approach in order to measure them.
The EPA estimates that up to 30,000 children and old people live in Toa Alta –nearly half the municipality’s population – and face a heightened danger from contaminates coming out of the landfill.
“We demand Governor Rosselló shut down Toa Alta, today,” said Torres Montalvo. “Allowing Toa Alta to continue to operate without a permit and in the face of incompetence at the EPA endangers the lives of all Puerto Ricans. Governor Rosselló can change that today. It would also send a signal to Washington and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions that under Governor Rosselló, Puerto Rico follows the rule of law, and is befitting to become a state.”
Today, the Senate will have its first debate about landfill policy in Puerto Rico, but we hope that it will really tackle what needs to be debated: the issue of toxic landfills on the Island. The issue at hand cannot be turned into a distraction which clouds the reality of a crucial question which affects many more than just a group responsible for heading up a campaign against the deposit of coal ash in a compliant landfill in Penuelas.
In today’s debate, I hope you will not forget the evidence provided by proven cases of illegal operations that have violated federal and Commonwealth laws in the toxic, non-compliant municipal landfills in Anasco, Arecibo, Arroyo, Barranquitas, Cabo Rojo, Cayey, Culebra, Florida, Guayama, Hormigueros, Isabela, Jayuya, Juana Diaz, Juncos, Lajas, Moca, Toa Alta, Toa Baja, Vega Baja and Yauco. These are municipal landfills that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recorded as presenting “an imminent danger to human health and the environment”, poisoning the groundwater, the soil and the air in these communities and breaking almost every federal rule for landfill compliance that is in effect. Every one of these toxic landfills is open and operating right now as you meet in the Capitolio, and there has never been one single Independentista leader who has had any sympathy for these communities suffering from the pollution generated by these toxic landfills. I can say this, because Puerto Rico Limpio has been fighting to close these landfills without them providing any support. The debate which is to take place today should focus on getting a clear public policy about solid waste management.
This group which has been demonstrating should meet with the neighbors of Candelaria, next to the toxic landfill in Toa Baja, where the toxic contamination was documented just last month by the Puerto Rico and mainland U.S. media when Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez toured the area. Neither have Senator Maria de Lourdes Santiago nor Mayor Carmen Yulin ever been to the Toa Alta landfill neighborhood nor have they spoken to Connie Calise Citron. For years, Connie has watched the illegal mountain of unlined toxic trash grow bigger and bigger and the leachates pour out of the site and into the community. Given this situation, the neighbors have had to leave their houses being because the Government of Puerto Rico has abandoned all these communities who have suffered real contamination, real hardships, threats to their health, their drinking water and their quality of life. All of this has been documented. It would be terrible that today, while this session is taking place in the Senate, they continue to abandon all of these communities.
Puerto Rico Limpio has comprehensively documented the depth of the landfill crisis and proposed real policy solutions to the Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico. Our 4-point plan focuses on: 1) revoking the permitting authority of the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board (EQB); 2) closing toxic dumps immediately; 3) repurposing closed landfills for conversion to better uses, like clean, sustainable energy alternatives like solar and wind generation; and 4) adopting a plan for full compliance. Unfortunately, neither Maria de Lourdes Santiago and Carmen Yulin or their pro-Independence comrades have supported our efforts.
I join in continued solidarity with the 20 disadvantaged and forgotten communities all across Puerto Rico in urging the Senate to urgently include their suffering, and end what the EPA has called an imminent danger and threat to them, by closing the non-compliant and toxic landfills across the Commonwealth. Also, they should hold a real debate about solid waste management reform for Puerto Rico. If you abandon the thousands more who need to be defended, you will be only increasing the suffering of these people and allowing the danger around the toxic landfills in Puerto Rico to continue, transferring the bigger and more devastating costs into the future.
HIRAM TORRES MONTALVO
Co-founder, Puerto Rico Limpio
“Where were these activists when I needed them in Toa Alta?” asks neighbor of toxic municipal landfill that remains open today
(SAN JUAN, P.R. – November 29, 2016) The recent protests by the Puerto Rican Independence Party and supporters like Carmen Yulin against the disposal of coal ash is a distraction from the proven scourge of 20 toxic landfills endangering poor communities all over Puerto Rico. To the citizens in Puerto Rico Limpio, who have fought against non-compliant landfills poisoning their communities for years, these political leaders and their movements have turned a blind eye to their suffering.
“The actions of Maria de Lourdes Santiago and Carmen Yulin have distracted and undermined efforts to close as many as 20 toxic, illegal landfills that have violated Puerto Rican and federal law for decades,” said Hiram Torres Montalvo, co-founder of Puerto Rico Limpio. “These protests are entirely political, and have nothing to do with saving the environment or cleaning up our communities.”
Recently, Puerto Rico Limpio outlined a 4-point plan to close the toxic landfills in a letter to the Congressional Task Force on Economic Growth in Puerto Rico on September 2, 2016. Puerto Rico Limpio’s 4-point plan focuses on: 1) revoking the permitting authority of the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board (EQB); 2) closing toxic dumps immediately; 3) repurposing closed landfills for conversion to better uses, like clean, sustainable energy alternatives like solar and wind generation; and 4) adopting a plan for full compliance. Unfortunately, neither Maria de Lourdes Santiago and Carmen Yulin or their pro-Independence supporters have supported our efforts.
“I have watched everyone in our neighborhood abandon their houses as the toxic landfill got bigger and the contamination got worse,” said Concetta “Connie” Calise Cintron, resident of Toa Alta. “Where were these activists when I needed them here? The Toa Alta landfill is still open this morning and not one of them has ever been here to help us.”
“How can so many politicians in Puerto Rico waste their time and energy protesting when my family and our community can hardly live by the polluted landfill at Toa Baja?” decried Candelaria, Toa Baja resident Adelaida Gonzalez who recently hosted US Congressman Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-IL) for a community meeting seeking attention for Puerto Rico’s toxic landfill crisis. “Maria de Lourdes and Carmen Yulin do not represent poor communities like Candelaria; they represent themselves.”
“I have been fighting the government for years to close Toa Alta landfill, but there is so much corruption and politicians here have just ignored us,” said Calise Cintron. “I pray Ricardo Rossello closes these landfills where real pollution is happening.”
Why bother complying when there is no enforcement of the law? Puerto Rico Limpio responds to Puerto Rico Government
(SAN JUAN – June 13, 2016) In response to statements by the Government of Puerto Rico, the citizen action group Puerto Rico Limpio said that only full enforcement of federal and local laws will solve the toxic landfill crisis in Puerto Rico.
“Focusing on recycling has failed Puerto Rican communities. The results are terrible. Our recycling rates are less than 10%,” said Hiram Torres Montalvo, co-founder of Puerto Rico Limpio. “There is a simple reason for this failure: why recycle when a municipality can dump all their trash in a cheap, non-compliant landfill for half the cost or less? The landfills have no incentive to participate. And when the EPA rules are not enforced, it makes no sense to comply.”
Nelson Santiago, the chief solid waste official for the Government of Puerto Rico, was quoted in today’s El Nuevo Dia as saying that following the law “is a big challenge for the operators” of the toxic landfills and suggesting that the public is to blame for producing trash.
“The law is clear: every landfill must have liners, trash covers, and leachate controls or it’s an illegal site. This can’t be any simpler,” Torres Montalvo said. “Most of the 27 landfills in Puerto Rico have none of these requirements and nobody is doing anything about it. If the mayors don’t care about the law, and the Puerto Rico government doesn’t care about the law, and Judith Enck, the Administrator for Region 2 of the EPA doesn’t want to enforce the law, then where is this big challenge for the landfill operators? If there are no consequences for decades of contaminating the groundwater, the ocean, marine resources, the land and the air, then how can you blame the victims in these communities instead of all the agencies who refuse to do their job and enforce the law?”
Torres Montalvo said the only focus for solving the landfill crisis is real enforcement or the contamination will only worsen.
“After decades of contamination allowed by the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board and the EPA, it’s clear that the policy of doing nothing has created this crisis, not a lack of recycling. Our landfills still have no liners, no leachate controls, no gas monitoring and no trash covers. They are illegal sites that violate local and federal laws. The ADS response and EPA’s complicit behavior is an attempt to distract and confuse the public from their own failures to safeguard our communities,” Torres Montalvo said.
“Judith Enck has another Flint developing in her region. When is she going to act?” Torres Montalvo concluded.
Links to case studies of toxic landfills that the EPA has allowed to break the law for decades:
EQB documents show Toa Alta landfill illegally removed controls on groundwater contamination; EPA took no action
(Toa Alta, P.R. – May 26, 2016) Despite repeated protests by local residents demanding the closure of the Toa Alta municipal landfill for grave violations of federal and local laws, documents obtained by the citizens’ action group Puerto Rico Limpio show the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board discovered that controls against groundwater contamination at the landfill were dismantled in 2014 by the municipality. But the landfill remains open today.
Worse yet, these illegal actions by Toa Alta happened at the same time that former EQB director Laura Velez said that Toa Alta landfill was getting the highest amount of funding from the Puerto Rico Solid Waste Management Authority (ADS, in Spanish) for “Operation Compliance” – $450,000 from a $3.5 million fund – to ensure compliance with local and federal rules.
But Puerto Rico Limpio made a visual inspection from outside the landfill with leaders of the U.S. advocacy group Green Latinos. What was discovered was a shocking example of the mismanagement and the lies behind Puerto Rico’s landfill crisis.
The only effective barrier around the landfill’s property is built along a neighborhood side street, to hide a huge lake of toxic water from public view. But Green Latinos recorded a brief video through an opening in the barrier:
On the video, one can observe garbage trucks driving along the landfill, and hundreds of channels carved into the side of the cliff by leachates – which is toxic water running out of the trash, which by law must be controlled. Then, at the bottom of the cliff the viewer can see the “leachate lake” fed by toxic water coming out of the trash. Wildlife is seen living in and around it. There is nothing protecting local homes a few meters from this water, outside the fence.
The video showed that Toa Alta is poisoning the community around that landfill.
There is more to the story of the Toa Alta landfill, and how the municipality, the EQB and the EPA have all let this happen to the people of Puerto Rico. While Puerto Rico, the White House and Congress are debating an emergency response to the Zika epidemic on the Island, a landfill with inadequate barriers against irregular dumping and no controls over accumulation of water could be a perfect breeding ground for Zika-carrying mosquitos.
When Puerto Rico Limpio first visited the landfill, leachates could be seen running out of unlined mountains of trash. They were visible from the public highway and roads around the landfill. Satellite photos show at least two “leachate lakes”, including the one in the video, which have grown bigger over the years. Because of Toa Alta’s location, all of this toxic water is directly affecting the North Coast Limestone Aquifer system of Puerto Rico.
Interviews with nearby residents revealed this has been happening for many years. Resident Connie Cintron provided photographs she took several years ago, showing leachates running out of the landfill at Toa Alta. She said all her life, she has been sickened by the smell coming from the landfill, and the vermin and insects it produces. In April 2015, El Vocero reported that Toa Alta was one of 18 landfills “cited” by EQB for “deficiencies” including uncontrolled leachates. The EQB notified Toa Alta of its violations on November 18, 2014, warning that levels of explosive methane CH4 exceeded the maximum 25% under Rule 530 for Gas Controls. The landfill also didn’t have barriers keeping intruders out, along with other violations.
Elected officials complained to the municipality. Representative Angel ‘Gary’ Rodriguez (PNP), Senator Migdalia Padilla (PNP), and Senator Carmelo Rios (PNP) have gotten complaints from residents of Barrio Contorno and the Sector of Cielito about “smell, proliferation of flies and other vermin coming from the landfill in Toa Alta.” They demanded the EQB take immediate action.
But EQB documents obtained by Puerto Rico Limpio show that the municipality of Toa Alta not only made no improvements, but actively sabotaged controls at the landfill that are required by law to protect the community.
Toa Alta took almost a half million dollars while they dismantled the toxic water controls, letting leachates spill into two sink holes and the soil all around the landfill. They were told to improve the barriers around the landfill, but the only effective barrier is to hide the leachate lake they’d created.
It’s now a fair question to ask: were crimes committed at Toa Alta landfill? If so, why didn’t the EPA take action to prevent it, or intervene to stop it?
And how much damage has already been done to the community, to the groundwater and to the environment?
Puerto Rico Limpio and the U.S. environmental advocacy group Green Latinos have launched an online petition to the EPA, demanding immediate action on Puerto Rico’s landfill crisis: “The EPA knows the sites are dangerous and has yet to force their closure, potentially putting underrepresented communities in direct harm for generations,” the petition says. To view and sign the petition, visit: www.greenlatinos.org/epa_petition