Millions of Puerto Ricans are still without water, food, electricity and shelter, four weeks after Hurricane Maria destroyed the island. With waterborne illnesses on the rise, a full-blown humanitarian crisis is on the horizon.
“Raw sewage continues to be released into waterways and is expected to continue until repairs can be made and power is restored,” the EPA warns in a memo.
When the agency issued this statement, eighty-four percent of Puerto Rico was without electricity, and sixty percent of water treatment plants out of service.
“Water contaminated with livestock waste, human sewage, chemicals, and other contaminants can lead to illness when used for drinking, bathing, and other hygiene activities,” the EPA says.
To make matters worse, Puerto Rico is home to 21 Superfund sites - the nation’s most deadly depositories of toxic chemicals. The island also has a five-story-high coal ash dump in Guayama that was hit by the storm.
Floodwaters have already mixed deadly toxins from these sites into nearby waterways, which residents are forced to use to bathe and drink. In a desperate attempt to save their own lives, some Puerto Ricans are drinking highly contaminated water from wells that were once sealed to avoid exposure to deadly toxins.
Families who have lost everything now must contend with the possibility that their groundwater is tainted with poison.
The Complexion for Protection
On the same day the EPA issued its warning, President Trump took to Twitter to complain, “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders… in P.R. forever!”
First, Mr. President, a reality check. The devastation caused by major storms takes years, not weeks, to repair. FEMA is still at work in New Orleans, twelve years after Hurricane Katrina, and in New Jersey and New York five years after Hurricane Sandy. EPA cleanup of contaminated sites takes even longer.
Second, a political check. Puerto Ricans are American citizens, and have been for more than a century. They serve in our Armed Forces and pay taxes, even if they weren’t allowed to vote for you – or any candidate - for President, and have no representation in Congress.
As Puerto Rico’s Governor, Roberto Roselló, wrote in his response to Trump’s Twitter tantrum, "The U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are requesting the support that any of our fellow citizens would receive across our Nation."
This is discrimination, plain and simple. When President Trump visited San Juan, he threw paper towels at a crowd of suffering people and scolded them for busting his budget. They weren’t amused by his theatrics.
They, like the Houston residents who live near waterways fouled by toxins from the San Jacinto Superfund site, are people of color – apparently not the right complexion for protection.
Dismissing the Victims
Dismissing victims is not unusual for this administration and for the EPA. The agency’s new chief, Scott Pruitt, spends his time on the road meeting privately with corporate CEOs responsible for these toxic waste sites. He then takes their wish-lists back to Washington so he can draft new ways to roll back the environmental protections they loathe.
But local community leaders, with few exceptions, have not been given the opportunity to talk with Pruitt.
Congress passed legislation in 1986 directing EPA to pursue permanent remedies or cleanups that conform to stringent standards. Although permanent cleanups cost more at the front end, they save money over the long term, as evident by the disruption of buried waste from storms like Harvey, Irma, Katrina and Sandy.
So, why won’t the EPA enforce the permanent cleanup of these sites to avoid future cleanup costs as well as protect the community?
Because the people who live around most Superfund sites are poor and of color and are considered not worth the investment.
This is even more the case in in Puerto Rico, since lawmakers in D.C. feel no accountability to the island’s citizens, who are separated from the mainland and denied the right to vote.
The EPA Told Me So
How do I know this? An EPA regional representative recently told me they were not going to spend millions to clean up a site when the surrounding houses are worth $60,000. It doesn’t make cost-effective sense, he said; we’ll just try to contain the waste.
Yet these houses are people’s homes; inside are human beings raising their families, having backyard picnics and celebrating birthdays. The homes are their American Dream. How dare these government officials devalue their neighborhoods because they are not wealthy!
These families pay taxes, contribute to society and deserve every protection available from our government, regardless of their wealth, language or the color of their skin.
I fear that families that have already lost so much in this summer’s severe hurricanes will suffer even more in coming months because of the color of their skin and the level of their income.
And as they try to clean up the mud and debris and rebuild their lives, families must also worry about how much chemical residue is in the mud they and their children have been exposed to.
They Don’t Care, So We Must
There is no question in my mind that the Trump Administration does not care for victims, whether in Houston, Miami or San Juan. So we have to take responsibility to compel the administration to act and hold them accountable.
We have to force the government to protect people living near Superfund sites by permanently cleaning them up, and to give Puerto Rico’s people the equal treatment they deserve.