By Dr. Michael K. Dorsey
Twenty-two years ago the President of the United States mandated all Federal agencies make “environmental justice”part of their mission by “identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States and its territories and possessions” –including the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
The President’s directive, enshrined in an Executive Order, compelled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to turn to its newly-created Office of Environmental Justice to advance new programs and policies to guarantee American citizens equal environmental protection under the law. Though it was slow to recognize it, the EPA now accepts that equal environmental protections are often lacking in communities harmed first and most by the disproportionate siting and malfeasance of hazardous waste and other environmental and public health threats.
Adding to the misery of such injustice, many disproportionately burdened communities are often the most marginalized, commonly because of their racial or ethnic status and paltry income. In the United States hazardous waste and is disproportionately dumped on fellow poor, black and brown citizens living at the margins of an American dream as it becomes more akin to a nightmare. Puerto Rico is by no means exempt from the scourge of environmental injustice—or what many scholars call environmental racism.
Two-thirds or more of Puerto Rico’s municipal landfills do not comply with EPA rules. There are not just one or two landfills out of compliance. The problem affects the entire island. Of the Commonwealth’s 27 municipal landfills, at least 20 are non compliant with basic environmental rules. Recently in a tersely worded letter to a Member of Congress, the EPA Regional Administrator with oversight responsibility for the island’s landfill crisis asserted: “For many years, the EPA has worked to improve the management of solid waste in Puerto Rico.” Simultaneously the EPA also admits “landfills in Puerto Rico have not always been closed in accordance with the minimum federal and state regulations.” This report reveals, through internal EPA documents, that the Agency has, in fact, simply failed to take appropriate actions for decades to address what it identified as an “imminent threat to human health and the environment.”
Lofty claims of proper oversight alongside admissions of the abrogation of basic duties from the EPA are cause for serious concerns at the highest levels. Such contradictory claims raise serious questions about leadership, management oversight, and very well may point to criminal negligence. This report by Puerto Rico Limpio details almost a generation of “looking the other way” by the EPA and its counterpart on the island: the Puerto Rican Environmental Quality Board. The findings are beyond disturbing. Enforcement staff warnings and suggestions are dialed down or disregarded. All the while communities are left in harm’s way to face problems that are only partially addressed, if at all.
The EPA is renewing its environmental justice agenda for the 21st century, in what it calls: EJ 2020. According to preliminary reports, “EJ 2020 is EPA’s EJ plan of action that will involve every EPA office and region.” It seems that Puerto Rico, pursuant to a 20th century presidential Executive Order, would be a great place to begin to renew serious work on environmental justice in the 21st century. At a minimum urgent resources and serious managerial oversight will be needed to stem the tide of the burgeoning landfill crisis. We should accept nothing less.
Dr. Michael K. Dorsey is an appointee on the U.S. EPA’s National Advisory Committee.