Puerto Rico

Trash Crisis Leaves Puerto Rico Near ‘the Brink’

Most of Puerto Rico’s landfills fail to meet federal standards and are almost full. Residents and experts worry that trash will soon overwhelm the region.

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Trash Crisis Leaves Puerto Rico Near ‘the Brink’

Coraly M. Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico

Nilda Delgado sits in front of prescription drugs she takes after two bouts with cancer. She suspects the town’s landfill contributed to the cancer-related deaths of several relatives.

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TOA ALTA, PUERTO RICO — Over the years, Benjamín González has watched his local landfill grow into a mountain of trash. It has polluted his city’s once-pristine ravines. It has tainted the limestone aquifer. And it has left dark, bubbling puddles that infect the air with an ever-present stench.

“There are days that you just can’t deal with it,” says González, who has been part of a years-long effort to close the dump.

The landfill’s trash towers over more than 100 houses in Contorno, a neighborhood in Toa Alta, a lush, tranquil city on Puerto Rico’s northern coast, once known for its famous writers and poets.

Today, residents say, it’s increasingly known for noxious odors that trap them inside and pollution that they suspect has caused serious illnesses. Their worries reflect a decades-long waste-management crisis in Puerto Rico that has only worsened in recent years, as recycling rates remain low even as trash piles up.

Every person in the region generates an average of 5.6 pounds of trash a day, according to a 2019 report card on Puerto Rico’s infrastructure by the American Society of Civil Engineers. That compares with 4.4 pounds elsewhere in the United States.

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Coraly M. Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico

A Contorno resident displays photos the community used to draw attention to the landfill’s problems. But their efforts have dwindled over the past decade, she says.

Because Puerto Rico is a cluster of islands, the trash has nowhere to go, says Carl Soderberg, executive director of the Puerto Rico chapter of the Inter-American Association of Sanitary Engineering and Environmental Sciences.

“We’re one step away from the brink,” he says.

Twenty-nine landfills are spread throughout the region. Eighteen do not meet federal standards because, among other violations, they function as “open dumps.”

The landfills are already so full that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency predicts that they will outstrip their capacity by 2023.

Puerto Rico recycles only 9% to 14% of its trash, although at least 35% of its solid waste is recyclable. In 2017, the trash crisis worsened when hurricanes Maria and Irma left at least 2.5 million tons of debris.

The landfill that bedevils Contorno residents opened in 1966. Two potable water wells and 14 subterranean water wells lie within 2 miles of the landfill. They feed into the Río de la Plata valley, an important potable water aquifer.

The dump sits on 31 acres, and it became such a menace that Contorno residents formed Toalteños por el ambiente (Toa Alta Residents for the Environment) to oppose it. They wrote the municipal legislature and the Environmental Quality Board (now part of Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources) to complain about the stench. They were also angry that when it rained, torrents of trash flowed from the dump.

González says that before Environmental Quality Board officials paid visits, residents always warned landfill managers. But they covered the trash with soil after leaving it in the open for weeks, a violation of EPA standards.

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Coraly M. Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico

José Rodríguez stands next to an accumulation of dark, smelly, bubbling liquid – known as leachate – that the dump discharges just a few steps from his home.

“We got tired,” says González, who was part of Toalteños por el ambiente. “We went to the municipal legislature. They held meetings. We could see that it’s uphill. We could see that it’s not worth it.”

By 2016, the Toa Alta landfill contained at least 30 million pounds of household hazardous waste – not including that which found its way into the surrounding area, according to an EPA administrative order in 2017.

Maintenance is poor, and exposed trash blows from the landfill. The dump also releases a foul-smelling liquid – known as leachate – to the tune of at least 4 million gallons a year. A 2012 study linked the leachate to abnormal development, low birth weight, leukemia and other types of cancer in nearby communities.

In 2017, the EPA ordered the dump to close. But it is still receiving trash.

María Coronado, director of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources’ land contamination program, says a shutdown order does not necessarily mean immediate closure.

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Coraly M. Cruz Mejías, GPJ Puerto Rico

Nilda Delgado, in brown, and Benjamín González look out over the dump, which borders a road in the neighborhood of Contorno.

“This is a gradual process that can take a couple of years or more, depending on the size of the facility,” she says, adding that the landfill can take more trash through expansion.

José Rodríguez disagrees.

“That landfill should close; it can’t take any more,” says the Contorno resident, who lives steps away from a cesspool of stagnant liquid from the dump.

Rodríguez says mosquitoes and flies constantly swarm his house. And González says the landfill’s overpowering odor often keeps residents inside.

“At night it looks like fog, but it’s gas emanating from there,” Rodríguez says. “They breathe that gas inside of their homes without knowing it. People die without knowing that. It’s dangerous.”

In and around Contorno, at least 15 people have died of cancer over the past few years, residents say.

Nilda Delgado, 76, has had cancer twice. She’s now in remission, but the disease has killed several of her family members in the last 20 years.

“Aunt Fucha died of cancer, Aunt Juana died of cancer, Aunt Fela died of cancer, Uncle Mario died of cancer, Feldi and his wife died of cancer,” she says. “Raúl and his wife both died of cancer.”

She fears the landfill’s pollution hastened their deaths: “Everyone here is dying of cancer.”

Coronado says the organization wants to address the community’s concerns about cancer.

“It is in the interest of the secretary of the DNER that the community be attended to and feel attended to,” she says. “No community has to put up with this type of situation and [have] their quality of life be affected in this way.”

She also says a raft of challenges has beset the soil contamination program, which she runs. They include a lack of staff to monitor such situations, she says.

Since Jan. 14, Coronado says, the department has inspected the Toa Alta landfill, and met with the landfill’s director of operations and area residents. On Feb. 4, the agency sent the municipal government a letter outlining the landfill’s problems, the most serious issue being the cesspool of leachate. The municipality has 30 days from that date to begin attacking the problems, Coronado says.

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The United States Congress has approved about $40 million and disbursed more than $6 million for the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources to recruit personnel and improve infrastructure and recycling management projects, Coronado says. And the agency will announce stricter rules on landfill management in March.

Still, Contorno residents say the government has failed them.

“I’m just tired,” González says. His neighbors nod and return to their homes.

Coraly Cruz Mejías is a Global Press Journal senior reporter based in Puerto Rico. She specializes in environmental reporting.

Translation Note

Sarah DeVries, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.