A Bigger Crisis in Puerto Rico May Be Developing

The ongoing economic crisis in Puerto Rico has almost completely overshadowed the environmental one that’s gone virtually unnoticed by the major news media. The majority of the island’s landfills are well over capacity and possibly spreading disease and toxic waste to the nearby communities. The Environmental Quality Board, the local government entity in charge of managing Puerto Rico’s ecological concerns, was granted control over the landfills by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1994. Evidently, the EQB has not followed the regulations put in place by the EPA and the latter is cracking down of the former. However, Puerto Rico Limpio, an environmental citizen’s action group on the island, released a fairly damning report based on the EPA’s own documents that accused the agency of ignoring the impending crisis for the past decade.

The online narrative for this situation looks like a one-sided duel of press releases. In one corner, you have the EPA doing its best to claim a premature victory for wagging its finger at the EQB and closing down two landfills, with plans to shut down the rest in upcoming years. On the other side is PRL tossing fire and brimstone at the EPA for ignoring EQB’s wrongdoings for so long. To their credit, the EPA has stepped in a few times on the island in the past year, though that’s only recently and only concerning polluted water and private commercial interests. Up until now, the EPA has done little besides the finger-wagging at the EQB about the crowded landfills and, in an eerie repetition of the Flint water crisis, has done little else with the derelict local government agencies on the island.

That last point may shed some light on the entire situation. In the case of Flint, the EPA was supposedly powerless to take any action against Michigan’s own local environmental government agency. If the same is true in this scenario, then that’d the great case of tragic irony, given how easily every other federal agency who has tried has superseded the Puerto Rican government’s authority. Congress is sending a pretty clear message about priorities when it steps in to protect the investments of hedge funds and restore confidence in the municipal bond market, but not when another government body is trying to make sure the land stays habitable. As hyperbolic as that sounds, who can argue otherwise? Dozens of politicians stepped in to weigh in on the fiscal crisis, most weighing heavily in favor of restructuring the debt as opposed to a bailout. In contrast, only one congressional representative has been the only one so far to sound the alarm bells about the landfills, and he’s a former Puerto Rico resident.

Besides bureaucratic red tape, incompetence or corruption, the only other explanation for the EPA’s willful ignorance is just that they thought no one would care. The lack of coverage of the crisis from any of the major news organizations seems to support that last theory. Possibly irreparable environmental damage is going on as you read this, and it’s happening right on American soil. Every ecological activist should be bringing attention to this impending disaster, just as with #NoDAPL and the Sioux people who are even now fighting to fend off their own man-made crisis.