EPA Administrator Regan Announces Initial Actions to Protect Communities Following Puerto Rico Journey to Justice Tour

WASHINGTON (November 4, 2022) – Following through on his commitment to delivering solutions to the people of Puerto Rico, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan announced today a series of initial actions that respond directly to the concerns he saw and heard during his Journey to Justice tour in Puerto Rico this summer. In addition, the Administrator highlighted ongoing agency efforts to address environmental and health challenges. During his visit to Puerto Rico, Administrator Regan heard firsthand from communities facing environmental justice concerns and pledged that EPA would take steps to address the disproportionate impacts of pollution in and around Salinas and Guayama, issues related to the San Juan Bay Estuary System, challenges with access to clean drinking water in rural communities like Caguas, and solid waste issues throughout the island, including in Arecibo.

“For too long, communities in Puerto Rico have suffered untold inequities – from challenges with access to clean drinking water to fragile infrastructure that cannot withstand the increase and intensity of storms brought on by climate change, as evidenced by Hurricane Fiona,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan.  “I saw many of these concerns firsthand while meeting with community leaders during my Journey to Justice tour this summer, and I committed to taking action. These initial actions are just the beginning of our work to deliver results for the people of Puerto Rico, and EPA will continue to protect the health and safety of communities that have been left behind for far too long.”

Hurricane Fiona Recovery Efforts

This fall, the number one priority is to ensure Puerto Rico continues to recover from the most recent hurricane. The impacts and aftermath of Hurricane Fiona illuminate the disparity and disproportionate impacts witnessed during Administrator Regan’s Journey to Justice Tour, as well as underscore the importance of furthering environmental justice for the residents of Puerto Rico.

EPA is currently supporting the disaster response efforts under three Mission Assignments. EPA has deployed personnel to the Joint Field Office (JFO) in San Juan, working directly with FEMA to provide support for the Puerto Rico government. Under a second Mission Assignment, EPA is participating in the Power System Stabilization Task Force, which includes FEMA, the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Department of Energy, and the government of Puerto Rico.  In this capacity, EPA has helped conduct field assessments, which will inform USACE’s future repair work. Under a third Mission Assignment, EPA is charged with conducting damage assessments of landfills as a result of the hurricane.

Salinas, Guayama, and Arroyo

Community advocates in the area surrounding the AES Power Plant (AES-PR) facility in Guayama requested federal assistance for air monitoring and groundwater sampling. EPA will invest $100,000 to launch two critical pilot projects in collaboration with community leaders and the Puerto Rico government.

In response to community concerns about groundwater contamination stemming from coal combustion residuals (CCRs) from AES-PR, EPA will sample groundwater used as drinking water in areas in southern Puerto Rico where CCRs were historically placed. As a first step in response to the community’s request, EPA is actively gathering information on existing drinking water wells located near areas where CCRs have been placed in the past. EPA is also evaluating the parameters of a drinking water well sampling plan. EPA will work closely with the community and Puerto Rico entities such as the Puerto Rico Department of Health, the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA), and the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (PR DNER) to further develop the project plan.

EPA experts from the regional EPA office and its headquarters in DC are ensuring compliance with regulatory requirements at the AES-PR facility by assessing the adequacy of the liner placed under a pile of CCR temporarily stored at AES-PR. The purpose of the liner is to stop the spread of metals and other contaminants from the CCR pile to groundwater, which is required by rules governing CCR. EPA is also reviewing the company’s plan to address elevated levels of metals found in groundwater.

EPA will also conduct a fine particle pollution (PM2.5) pilot project in the AES-PR fenceline communities. This project is currently under development with an expected start by the end of December 2022. Equipment is already in-house, and preparation to ensure scientific integrity of the project is also under development. EPA will deploy “Purple Air” sensors to help with a screening project for the purpose of locating a new air monitoring station. EPA Regional staff will soon meet with the community to determine where the air monitors will be located. 

In addition, EPA has issued notices of violation to AES-PR identifying potential violations under air and CCR laws or regulations, including the notice the Administrator announced during his July visit. EPA is in active discussions with the company on these notices and is continuing to assess overall compliance. Enforcement actions will be taken, as appropriate, based on EPA’s assessment to ensure the safety of the community and compliance with the law.

EPA has taken decisive action to protect the Salinas community from emissions of ethylene oxide (EtO) from the Steri-Tech, Inc sterilizer facility. EPA notified the facility that it is in violation of current regulations to control EtO. Since then, the Steri-Tech facility installed new pollution control equipment. Under EPA’s supervision, the facility will conduct a performance test for this equipment, which is capable of reducing EtO from the facility sterilization chambers and aeration rooms by 99.9%. To better determine the levels of EtO emitted by the Steri-Tech facility, EPA monitored the air near the facility in August. EPA expects to get validated data from the air monitoring from the lab in November or December, and EPA scientists and engineers will be reviewing the results and presenting the results back to the community. EPA is continuing to discuss possible additional EtO control measures with Steri-Tech. Separately, EPA is working on more stringent regulations to reduce emissions of EtO from commercial sterilizer facilities across the country.

“This announcement is another great achievement for the communities and organizations that have spent years fighting to improve our health. We managed to get funds from EPA allocated to monitor the air in the communities of Guayama adjacent to the coal plant and to monitor the groundwater from the sites where AES’s toxic wastes were buried. This is another step in the search for justice and we will continue to fight,” said Victor Alvarado from Comité Diálogo Ambiental.

Caguas and Other Communities with Small Community-Run Drinking Water Systems

During the recent Journey to Justice in Puerto Rico, community leaders responsible for managing and operating community drinking water systems requested support and technical assistance, including with disaster recovery efforts. At Administrator Regan’s direction, EPA Region 2 recently hired and trained a team to be dispatched to provide technical assistance to small community-run drinking water systems, known as Non-PRASA (Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority) systems.

Over the next few months, with funding for environmental justice work from the American Rescue Plan, the team will conduct a Capacity Assessment of Puerto Rico’s 240 Non-PRASA systems to understand the systems’ capacity and infrastructure needs. Based on the capacity assessment, EPA is providing technical assistance to the community to help them access federal funding and navigate regulatory requirements.

Guaynabo and Cataño

As a result of an EPA recommendation, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) lodged a court settlement in mid-September with Total Energies Marketing Puerto Rico Corp., requiring the company to make about $1.3 million in improvements to resolve violations of the Clean Air Act at its petroleum storage facility in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, a move that will protect the people of Guaynabo, as well as nearby communities in Cataño. The settlement requires measures and actions to resolve serious problems and inadequate maintenance at the company’s petroleum storage facility in Guaynabo. The company will also pay a civil penalty of $500,000.

Toa Alta

Illegal and poorly run landfills have posed immediate risks to the people who live near them. One such landfill is the Toa Alta landfill. In early August 2022, EPA and the DOJ filed a stipulated order, with input from the community, that requires the Municipality of Toa Alta to immediately address serious issues at its landfill. This order included input from those in the community most impacted. It requires Toa Alta to stop receiving waste, cover exposed areas of the landfill and put plans into place to manage stormwater and contaminated liquid flowing from the landfill. As a result, the landfill has now ceased receiving residential waste.

Arecibo

In July, EPA officials were invited to visit Arecibo and discuss concerns about old landfills and the solid waste issues. As a follow up to this request, in October, EPA Regional Administrator Lisa F. Garcia visited and met with the communities in Arecibo surrounding the Landfill. During that visit, EPA was joined by PR DNER and the Municipality of Arecibo. Nearby communities have been raising concerns that the landfill is not using daily cover and there are serious odor, noise and air and water quality pollution concerns. PR DNER and the Mayor of Arecibo agreed to work with EPA to respond to community concerns and close the landfill. The landfill is expected to close in 2027. On October 7, the landfill operator submitted a closure plan that DNER will review with EPA oversight and input.

San Juan Bay Estuary System

During the Administrator’s Journey to Justice tour, community leaders involved in work within the San Juan Bay Estuary System highlighted their needs to restore the estuary system and address the serious risks faced by people living near the San Juan Bay.

Thanks to President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), the San Juan Bay Estuary Partnership will receive more than $4.5 million over five years for a management and restoration project focused on environmental justice communities.  Just recently, a $1.2 million research project on emerging contaminants was awarded to the University of Puerto Rico to be conducted at the San Juan Bay Estuary’s San Jose Lagoon. PR DNER included this research project as part of its Clean Water Act State Revolving Fund BIL funding. This research project will help to establish the framework for the development of an integrated platform to monitor and forecast Harmful Algal Blooms at San José Lagoon.

In response to the illegal sewage discharges at Suarez Canal within the San Juan Bay Estuary, EPA will work with the San Juan Bay Estuary Partnership and the Illegal Discharge, Detection and Elimination (IDDE) Task Force.  This Task Force is a multi-sector group that identifies and addresses the discharge of used non-treated water and other sources of contamination in the estuary. The Task Force is a group of state and federal agencies, including EPA, along with representatives from eight municipalities on the estuary, in collaboration with community and academic representatives.

“During Administrator Regan’s visit to Puerto Rico, he saw first-hand several of the environmental challenges with the San Juan Bay Estuary, drinking water systems in Caguas, and communities living near the AES facility in Guayama,” said Brenda Torres, Executive Director of the San Juan Bay Estuary Program. “The EPA actions announced today are concrete steps towards addressing those issues, and I want to thank the Administrator for putting a national spotlight on several of the most pressing environmental challenges our island faces.”

Island-wide

New Regional Environmental Justice Office

In September, Administrator Regan established a new national program office charged with advancing environmental justice and civil rights. The new Office of Environmental Justice and External Civil Rights will dedicate more than 200 EPA staff in EPA headquarters and across 10 regions towards solving environmental challenges in underserved communities.

On the heels of that announcement, EPA Region 2 has established a regional environmental justice office in its regional headquarters. One of the members of this team will be based in the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division in Puerto Rico, working directly with the Office of the Regional Administrator, and will be dedicated to working with communities on the ground in Puerto Rico.   

Water Infrastructure

Thanks to President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, this year alone, Puerto Rico will receive approximately $78.4 million – with more to come over the next five years – for water infrastructure projects, such as replacing lead pipes, tackling emerging contaminants like PFAS, and building resilient drinking water and wastewater systems.

Solid Waste Management

While Puerto Rico’s efforts to close open dumps continue, EPA is assisting PR DNER on its work to develop an Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan, which will help Municipalities, community leaders and environmental non-government organizations (NGOs) understand Puerto Rico’s plans and strategies to manage solid waste sustainably. In October, EPA and PR DNER convened meetings with representatives from the Puerto Rico Association and Federation of Mayors, community leaders and NGOs to engage in a dialogue about their perspective on solid waste and explore ways they can support PR DNER’s planning process.

For more information, about EPA’s efforts to advance environmental justice, visit https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice.

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