EPA decision will hurt Puerto Rico coral reefs, say conservationists

Nov. 30, 2000
Local environmentalists call new development a death sentence for Puerto Rico's corals.

By CARMELO RUIZ-MARRERO

SAN JUAN, Nov 28, 2000 (IPS) -- Local environmentalists call this new development a death sentence for Puerto Rico's corals.

Puerto Rico will not have to obey the United States Clean Water Act for the next 20 years, thanks to an agreement between outgoing governor Pedro Rossello and Jeanne Fox, director of the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Region Two. EPA's Region Two includes the states of New York and New Jersey, as well as the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico has had a commonwealth association relationship with the United States since the 1898 Spanish-American war, and is subject to US laws. Although its inhabitants are US citizens, they have no voice or vote in Washington DC.

In concrete terms, the EPA-Rossello agreement means that the government of Puerto Rico will not have to convert five primary waste water treatment plants to secondary treatment until the year 2020.

The Clean Water Act, which dates from 1972, states that primary treatment of waste water cannot ensure the protection of public health and the environment, and that waste water must receive secondary treatment at the very least.

The Puerto Rico government's refusal to comply with this law is nothing new. As far back as 1979 it was requesting waivers to exempt 13 of its treatment plants from complying with the law. Of these requests, the EPA denied two and the government withdrew five, leaving the aforementioned five treatment plants, which were the object of the EPA-Rossello agreement.

During a recent visit to Puerto Rico in which she signed the deal with the governor in a high profile press conference, Fox claimed that Puerto Rico does not have the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to convert treatment plants to secondary treatment, and that secondary treatment is not necessary.

This agreement is a disaster and an environmental injustice against coastal ecosystems and the people of Puerto Rico, according to local environmentalists Mary Ann Lucking and Sarah Peisch.

"This is a death sentence for Puerto Rico's corals," declared Lucking, resident of the island-town of Culebra and spokeswoman of CORALations, a group devoted to reef protection.

During a recent interview, Lucking said that scientific studies carried out on the last 10 years show not even secondary waste water treatment is enough in tropical coastal ecosystems because they are extremely delicate and sensitive. For this reason, Puerto Rico needs either tertiary treatment or zero-discharge technologies, Lucking said.

The government argues that the first priority must be to connect more residences to the sewer system, since approximately half of all Puerto Ricans lack such a service. Only after that will the government be able to afford to protect the environment, according to this line of reasoning.

However, Lucking holds that the EPA-Rossello agreement has nothing to do with the laudable goal of providing sewer connections to poor people. She pointed to a treatment plant in the poor and predominantly black town of Loiza. That facility treats sewage from neighbouring towns, "but today less than 30 percent of Loiza residents are connected to a sewer", stated Lucking.

Peisch, of the Centre for Environmental Action, views the agreement as a dire blow to communities which for years have fought for the modernisation of treatment plants and for compliance of the Clean Water Act.

"The agreement has no legal foundation. It is a purely political agreement between a colonial government and that of the United States," said Peisch. "The government of Puerto Rico is accountable to the EPA and not to the people of Puerto Rico, when it should be the other way around. They are undermining the struggle of communities that demand clean water."

The agreement's critics are troubled by the fact that it depends on US Congress approval. They point out that the Congress is dominated by the anti-environmental Republican Party.

Lucking believes that the Puerto Rican government could get the money for the treatment plants' conversion without having to beg the Congress.

"When the government of the state of Florida decided it needed zero-discharge technologies to protect tourism in the Florida Keys, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided the necessary funds. If the Puerto Rican government took that same stance, the federal funds would appear."

Peisch points out that the agreement with Rossello is part of a broader pattern of EPA negligence. "The EPA is showing its unwillingness to enforce the most minimal requirements of the law."

"They (the EPA) sit on all permit applications that are controversial. They neither grant them nor deny them. Like in Vieques, where for 11 years the EPA has had in its hands a request from the US Navy for its seal of approval for its target practice in that island-town. The EPA does nothing about that, because in order to grant that permit it would have to hold public hearings and make related documents available to the people of Vieques.

"Through her agreement with Rossello, Jeanne Fox demonstrated that she does not respect the democratic processes taking place in Puerto Rico," said Peisch. "She prefers political backroom negotiations."

According to Lucking, EPA Region 2 is undermining the struggle against environmental injustice. "Fox has tried to modify the definition of environmental injustice in a way that excludes ethnic minorities. Region 2 uses complex mathematical models in order to justify anything, at the expense of the environment and the people."

The EPA's office in San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital, is of no real importance, since decisions are not taken there, said Peisch. "That local office has no decisional power. Decisions about water quality in Puerto Rico are made in Region 2's offices in New York City."

Lucking questions Puerto Rico's inclusion into Region 2. "How is it possible that Puerto Rico be put in the same EPA region as the states of New York and New Jersey, which have ecosystems so different from the ones we have here? Was that an environmental decision, or a political one?"

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