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The Long-Term Disaster in Puerto Rico

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The indifference and even open hostility of the Trump administration toward have responsibilities toward Puerto Rico (what do you think the chances are that Trump actually knew Puerto Ricans are American citizens a month ago are?) is contributing to what is going to be a very long-term crisis. This is exacerbated by its attempt to undercut anything the positive the government can do. So when you read this essay on the environmental impact on the hurricane on Puerto Rico, you immediately realize that a Scott Pruitt-led EPA, for instance, is just going to make everything worse by poisoning people.

Residents across the island have had to drink water contaminated with sewage, and that water purification systems have largely failed in the wake of the storm, the AP reports. In the municipality of Dorado, about 15 miles to the west of the capital, citizens resorted to drinking well water from Superfund sites, according to local news reports and an EPA brief. The vulnerability of Superfund sites during disasters has been vividly illustrated by the ecological damage in Texas during Hurricane Harvey—and before that, in Louisiana during Katrina and New Jersey during Sandy—but in Puerto Rico, where water deliveries have been bottlenecked by supply and infrastructure issues, those vulnerabilities are much more pronounced.

CNN reported on Saturday that the Puerto Rican water utility had pumped water from a well in the Dorado Groundwater Contamination Site, which had been closed off to avoid human exposure to the carcinogens tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene, in order to distribute water to citizens who’d queued up in long lines. While the well in question had been found to be within certain federal safety standards for the industrial chemicals chloroform and PCE, residents await further tests to assess the quality of the Dorado water.

“Following reports of residents attempting to access water wells at Superfund sites in Puerto Rico, EPA sent assessment teams to evaluate sites in Dorado, Caguas, and San Germán, Puerto Rico,” a spokesperson with the EPA’s Region 2 office said. Those teams are looking at the security of the contaminated sites and the condition of the wells they contain, but still have not been able to visit five Superfund sites on the island.

But wells are only one of the avenues by which people are exposed to water pollution, especially where flooding from Irma and Maria was worst. Arecibo is one such place. Myrna and I visited the Battery Recycling Company, an old temporarily-closed facility that in its heyday smelted used batteries into lead ingots, and now sits behind a rusting fence just off the highway. The site was just added to the Superfund list in July of this year, after the EPA found that lead dust from the facility had contaminated local homes and families.

While the Region 2 office says that after Maria, the EPA “completed the assessment of Battery Recycling Company Superfund site in Arecibo on September 22,” and that it had “not identified any contaminants leaving the site,” residents were skeptical. A man who greeted us near the facility, who declined to be identified, shared photographs of the entire facility still flooded four days after the storm. Conty, who leads a coalition of local residents against the siting of additional incinerators and landfills in the areas, echoed their concerns. “This was all flooded,” she told me. “That water has to be contaminated with lead, because it’s in the ground. It’s everywhere”

Even without the danger of pollutants leaching from Superfund sites, the water in Puerto Rico is still a problem. The Río Grande de Arecibo, which carves its way into the highlands from Arecibo, and is connected to the interior town of Utuado by the Río Viví tributary, has been polluted at multiple points along its route. The EPA found that an active paper and plastics factory in Utuado has been dumping and leaking wastewater in the Viví for 40 years, and the factory itself was named to the Superfund National Priorities List in 2009. Further downstream, the municipality of Arecibo was cited in 2012 under the Clean Water Act for dumping stormwater and untreated sewage into the river, after which the waste wound up in homes that had been flooded by the river. The river has been declared an “impaired” watershed under that act, from both chemical and biological pollution. And that’s the same water that brought an eight-foot inundation and a layer of mud to Arecibo during the storm.

Other parts of the island face the danger of long-term corruption of drinking water supplies after Maria. I found Ruth Santiago, an environmental lawyer based at the Inter American University Law School in San Juan, holding an open-air legal clinic session, training lawyers to offer pro bono legal aid for numerous environmental and housing complaints. Santiago told me that communities in southeastern Puerto Rico, where much of the island’s power is generated, had seen their grievances with the local industry balloon since the storm.

“On Saturday [October 7], we were over at Miramar in Guayama, which is a coastal community of fishers and former sugar cane workers and people who’ve sort of been excluded from the kinds of development you might see in the metro area,” Santiago said. “We were at the house of Mavet Colon-Perez. She’s 17 years old, and she took it upon herself to take a picture of the mountain of coal ash.”

Colon-Perez’s photos show what residents of Guayama claim is large-scale leaching of lime and other chemicals from local waste piles from the AES coal plant. AES Puerto Rico did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but a September 18 press release on the company’s website says that “AES-PR has implemented the necessary measures to guarantee the safety of the communities surrounding its plant in Guayama and that of its personnel activated to work during the hurricane.”

In other words, the Flint water crisis is actually the preferred mode of Republican governance, especially toward people of color. They aren’t going to put Puerto Rico back together again. And once again, no natural disaster is also not simultaneously a human disaster. Natural disasters exacerbate preexisting forms of inequality. Puerto Rico is going to be a front and center example of this going forward.

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