Puerto Rico's Environmental Catastrophe

Hurricane Maria has exposed and intensified the island’s ecological crisis and its human consequences. Can it build a sustainable future?

The flooded exterior of the paper mill and proposed incinerator site in Arecibo, Puerto Rico (Vann R. Newkirk II / The Atlantic)

ARECIBO, P.R.—“There’s no way there were just 45 deaths,” said Myrna Conty, an environmental activist whose work takes her regularly across the most remote parts of the island. She scoffed at the radio reports of the official death toll, a common refrain among Puerto Ricans whose personal stories—a cousin who died needing dialysis here, a neighbor who simply hasn’t been heard from there—when multiplied 3.5 million-fold make the official estimate seem impossible.

We’d followed the path that Hurricane Maria’s eye had taken along the highway to the west of San Juan. Three weeks after the storm, the tropical green was just starting to come back, sprouting over the brown wounds of mud and giant trees pulled up from their roots. Here in Arecibo, a small municipality about 40 minutes from San Juan on a good day, high-water marks from the flood stood out on building walls, seven or eight feet high. Obliterated houses marked the deserted hamlets along the road. Smokestacks had been snapped in half and wires lay slack where giant power pylons had fallen. The Río Grande de Arecibo that cuts through the municipality remained an swollen brown expanse, still threatening to drown bridges and homes. Arecibo was a ghost town.

But Conty’s dismay was also about the destruction that couldn’t be seen. For Conty, an old-guard environmental warrior in the countryside, Arecibo had been one of the key battlegrounds in her groups’ fights to contain poisons that affect much of Puerto Rico. But all of the signs around us showed that the battle had been—at least for now—lost. Across the island, residents already beset by water and food shortages are also facing real threats of contamination that have already spread illness and worse. “All of this is just the beginning,” Conty said. “This is catastrophic.”

Maria blew through the island in a matter of hours, but what was left behind wasn’t just traditional hurricane damage. The storm uncovered and intensified long-term environmental challenges that have long blighted Puerto Rico and now threaten its future. And securing a viable future for the island will mean more than just rebuilding what was lost from the wind and rain—it will require addressing those challenges in sustainable ways.

Residents across the island have had to drink water contaminated with sewage, and their 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.”

Since Santiago’s visit, lines of communication and roads out of San Juan have worsened. I was unable to reach Colon-Perez or her family to confirm Santiago’s account, or the local authorities to secure comment.  But residents from dozens of other municipalities have contacted Santiago’s legal clinic since the storm with their concerns over drinking water and industrial pollutants.

The Battery Recycling Company Superfund site in Arecibo, Puerto Rico (Vann R. Newkirk II / The Atlantic)

Just as the dire situation in Puerto Rico after the storm is at least in part an outgrowth of existing financial and infrastructural woes, the ubiquitous threats of contamination are outgrowths of problems that plagued people before the storm. Indeed, the island’s financial crisis was also an environmental crisis. Much of the commonwealth’s debt is attributable to PREPA, the island’s government-owned power authority, whose ongoing problems produced rolling blackouts even before Maria.

Like most islands, Puerto Rico is largely reliant on petroleum derivatives and coal for power, using very few renewable sources, even as backups for the primary grid. For years the PREPA has shipped diesel and fuel oil to the island for use in its centralized power plants, a power plan that ensures environmental fallout and maximizes emissions.

The other major portion of the Puerto Rican portfolio is coal, a source that might provide more problems for residents recovering from two hurricanes. The AES facility in Guayama is the lone coal-power plant on the island. It sits just miles away from the oil-power PREPA Aguirre plant in Salinas. In May, AES filed a petition with the EPA to lift some of the restrictions of its placement of coal ash, citing the island’s economic problems.

Southern communities have long complained about coal-ash waste from the plant, and in 2016 environmental activists in the southwestern community of Peñuelas were successful in blocking coal-ash dumping there. But since the island’s landfills are overflowing, piles like the mountain of coal-ash that Colon-Perez documented near Guayama still dot the Puerto Rican landscape, and waste disposal has become a pressing concern.

According to Santiago, who hails from Salinas, the problems of coal power and waste disposal impose a severe burden on the most vulnerable populations in Puerto Rico. “Places here near landfills, plants, and coal ash tend to have a higher poverty rate, a higher unemployment rate, and one of the highest levels of people of African descent,” Santiago told me. “It’s a classic environmental-justice situation.”

Conty, who has been involved in protests against the conversion of an old asbestos-lined paper mill into a waste-to-energy incinerator in Arecibo—a plan touted as an answer to both the island’s trash and the energy problems—agreed with that assessment. “It’s always in the poor communities,” she said as we toured the flooded grounds of the mill. Somehow the signs that Conty’s activists placed on a tree in front of the proposed site asking passersby to honk their horns to support the anti-incinerator group survived the storm that had stripped sheets of metal and girders from the mill itself. “I take it as a sign that Maria was actually against the incinerator,” Conty said.

Vann R. Newkirk II / The Atlantic

The problems in Puerto Rico feel almost too big to grasp. The mounting pressures of an aging and inefficient energy infrastructure, multiplying contaminated sites, waste disposal, and the most contaminated drinking water supply in the United States have long pointed in the direction of disaster. And now the problems are so much bigger. Tons of manmade debris and millions of pounds of foliage clog streets and waterways, and threaten to produce an acute trash and pollution crisis in the months to come. At least four hurricane-related deaths have been attributed to diseases like leptospirosis from bacteria in water, a number that seems likely to rise.

And in the constant state of emergency, the most expedient solutions—like rebuilding the fossil-fuel grid, utilizing even more diesel power, lifting coal-ash restrictions, and creating new incinerators—will likely be pursued regardless of their contribution to long-term environmental problems. Additionally, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt seems determined to ease the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act guidelines that help contain the worst of the pollution from landfills and plants.

But some citizens are attempting to combat pollution even as they work to stave off the worst after the storm. In the flickering downtown lights of San Juan, the prominent Puerto Rican journalist Jay Fonseca regularly holds meetings of concerned citizens who are attempting to offer services that FEMA and the local government have been unable to provide, but in a sustainable manner. I attended one such meeting last Wednesday. “We just said ‘Fuck it, we’ll do it,’” Fonseca told me afterwards. “We don’t want politics involved, and we aren’t asking for their permission.”

To provide those services, Fonseca’s ad hoc group is utilizing a new online disaster response and triage app, Connect Relief, in order to gauge the needs of desperate people across the island and find sustainable ways to meet them. Right now, reusable water filters are the most pressing concern, but the group has pursued a number of initiatives—from setting up solar-powered microgrids to using unused shipping containers to create “islands of sustainability” in relief camps. One member of the group, Maria Elena García of the Organización Pro Ambiente Sustentable (OPAS), says that she plans to study the U.S. Virgin Islands’s effort to create a chop-and-compost program for organic storm debris instead of burning it as a template for Puerto Rico’s trash problems.

Fonseca’s own pet project is the creation of a solar-powered laundromat, where local families can rotate laundry shifts on any day the sun is shining. “It’s a model community,” he told me.

Unfortunately, solar power is mostly unattainable as a source of immediate relief for most Puerto Ricans. These days, San Juan is abuzz with the name of Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, who donated $250,000 and an unspecified number of Powerwall solar batteries to the island, but so far those donations have provided little in the way of scalable energy. On October 5, Musk floated the idea on Twitter of Tesla helping rebuild the entire Puerto Rico power grid using renewable sources, but no concrete plans have yet emerged. When reached for comment, a Tesla spokesperson told me in an email that “it is too preliminary to comment on a story at this point, but [we] welcome you to follow Elon on Twitter.”

Necessity prevails, and those places that do have access to solar power have been pillars of the recovery. They offer glimpses of what life on Puerto Rico might look like in a more sustainable future. At the northern tip of the island, in Old San Juan, Eddie Ramirez’s Casa Sol bed and breakfast has become the de facto hub of the surrounding neighborhood, since (as the name implies) the business is completely powered by solar panels and a solar battery.

“I figured that we lived on a tropical island,” Ramirez said, “so going solar seemed like a good idea at the time.” Ramirez’s good idea is now a one-stop shop for community residents, who often come by to freeze their water, charge their phones, or do their laundry. The hotel lost four solar panels in Hurricane Maria, but Ramirez was able to quickly replace them after the storm passed.

Like many intact hotels, Casa Sol also houses journalists, FEMA contractors, charity workers, and storm victims who lost everything. But unlike most other hotels, residents at Casa Sol can grab hot showers, use WiFi, and even watch the news now and then when the battery is charged. “Just like everyone here, I try to do my part,” Ramirez told me. “It’s not a lot, but it’s what we have.”

Most places in Puerto Rico don’t have a Casa Sol nearby, and most residents don’t have the means to purchase solar batteries. But Ramirez’s example shows the simple advantages that investment in resilience and renewable energy can have in a disaster, a need that will only be more pressing in the years to come. The most ominous portent for Puerto Rico is that experts don’t view this extreme hurricane season and multiple direct hits to the island as aberrations, but as previews of the new normal in the near future of a changing climate.

David Ortiz, the executive director of the Enlace Latino de Acción Climática, says that climate change has already been wreaking havoc on the island, and that it now creates a positive feedback loop with related environmental terrors. “We didn’t need a hurricane to say climate change exists, because we’ve been seeing it already,” Ortiz notes. “I think people are learning that they need to better prepare themselves. Folks aren’t understanding that climate change is real. But they are now.”

The impacts on Puerto Rico in the past two years alone look like something out of a disaster movie. With changes in ocean temperature and acidity, corals in the island’s barrier reef have suffered bleaching. Beaches have eroded, and wetlands have been degraded. Agriculture has suffered three straight bad seasons, and in 2015 the territory faced a severe drought that forced authorities to implement widespread water rationing. And now Irma and Maria have brought the message home: Here, sustainability is literally survival.

For Ortiz, in the wake of federal decisions that have left the island disadvantaged in almost every way and local decisions that have worked against sustainability almost at every turn, the onus is on Puerto Rican citizens to ensure their own survival. “We’re all victims helping victims,” Ortiz told me. “You’re suffering too, but at the very same time you’re leading a relief effort. It’s hard. It’s mentally exhausting, and it’s also physically exhausting.”

“This could take us backwards, but this is an opportunity to move forward,” he continued. “We can redefine ourselves as a people, as an island, and as a country, and recognize that we live in a different world now.”