EPA Looks the Other Way as Puerto Rico Marinates in Toxic Waste

People fill containers with water funneled with pipes from a mountain stream nearly one month after Hurricane Maria struck on October 19, 2017 in Utuado, Puerto Rico. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Damage from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico goes much deeper than infrastructural destruction. With little access to electricity, potable water, and food, islanders’ basic survival needs are barely being met. Five weeks after the storm swept Puerto Rico, the island is now in a dangerous environmental catastrophe that requires immediate action. Puerto Rico was not equipped to handle a storm of Maria’s magnitude. Already juggling a financial and energy crisis before Hurricane Maria hit, the threat of toxic waste contamination floodwaters is not surprising.

A quarter of Puerto Ricans still lack access to clean water, and more than 80 percent of the island is without power. Worse yet, toxic waste tainting floodwaters has resulted in the dangerous spread of leptospirosis, a bacterial disease. At least 74 cases of leptospirosis, which is treatable by antibiotics, have been reported and two deaths have been confirmed. On Tuesday, Congress approved a $36.5 billion relief package aimed at hurricane and wildfire relief. However, lawmakers were still debating how much relief to send each place earlier this week, scrambling to protect their political interests while rushing the delivery of crucial aid.

“The administration was slow to respond to the disaster, and to claim that they get a ‘10 out of 10’ for their response is to ignore the facts,” Democratic Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont said on Monday in response to Donald Trump’s claim that the administration’s response to hurricane relief in Puerto Rico had been swift and effective. “This is not a reality TV show where the participant with the highest score advances to the next round. These are people’s lives. These are people’s homes. This is the hard part of governing. This is where we roll up our sleeves and dig in for the long haul.”

As Puerto Rico marinates in a toxic waste crisis, the EPA’s toxic chemical unit is currently rolling back toxic waste protocols under the watchful eye of Administrator Scott Pruitt. A confidential memo obtained by The New York Times last week on the EPA’s new initiatives to deregulate the tracking of toxic chemicals used in everyday household products made it clear that eliminating hazardous chemicals that threaten public health is not a concern of the administration. After natural disasters such as Hurricane Maria exposed the problem of treating toxic chemicals in water systems as a minimal threat, these new regulations, intended to deem such chemicals “less risky” and therefore less subject to financial restrictions, shed a concerning light on the EPA’s priorities.

On Thursday, the EPA’s communications office responded to The New York Times with outrage, writing in an email, “No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece,” wrote EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman to New York Times reporter Eric Lipton. “The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.”

As the situation in Puerto Rico grows more dire by the day, the need for the EPA to focus on toxic waste cleanup is more serious than ever. The island needs a unified effort to address environmental hazards posed in the wake of Hurricane Maria—not a fruitless feud with the media.

Francesca Friday is New York City-based National Politics contributor for Observer. Follow her on Twitter: @friday_tweets_

EPA Looks the Other Way as Puerto Rico Marinates in Toxic Waste