Debt-Ridden, Maria-Menaced Puerto Rico Faces Environmental Crisis

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By Adam Allington and David Schultz

Days after Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico, a severe reality is settling in: Food and gasoline are scarce, the island’s electric grid is decimated, and nearly half of the population lacks access to clean drinking water.

“In previous hurricanes, like Hugo [in 1989] and Georges [in 1998], people in rural areas or poor communities went to rivers and springs to get water,” said Alan Covich, an ecologist studying natural disturbances at the University of Georgia.

But Maria knocked down trees on mountain hillsides, making them susceptible to landslides and muddy waters, Covich told Bloomberg BNA. “When all of that sediment and debris makes its way into the river, it could contaminate the water, but it’s also going to create problems for treatment plants further downstream,” he said.

In the coming days and weeks, Covich said there will be a tremendous need for water purification kits across the U.S. territory, especially in rural areas. Without those kits, people will be drinking contaminated, stagnant water and face greater exposure to mosquito-borne diseases like Zika and Dengue fever, he said.

In a statement provided to Bloomberg BNA Sept. 26, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said it has delivered 6 million liters of water, 4 million meals, 300 infant and toddler kits, and 70,000 tarps to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria’s Sept. 20 landfall, which brought 150 mph winds.

“An additional 7 million meals and 4 million liters of water are en route by barge,” said FEMA.

According to the Department of Defense and others that are assisting in the humanitarian response, about 44 percent of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents are without clean drinking water.

And the destruction that Maria caused also could compound environmental risks in certain neighborhoods—particularly in low-income and rural areas.

Compromised Water Utility

Hurricane Maria’s devastating landfall came just two weeks after another powerful hurricane, Irma, skirted the island, leaving 1 million without power.

But even before the twin storms, the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA), was facing criticism for systems operating in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

And the island’s main water utility was hamstrung by $4 billion in outstanding debt, rendering the agency effectively unable to fund much-needed infrastructure upgrades.

Under a 2015 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency, PRASA agreed to undertake major upgrades, improve inspections, and prioritize island-wide capital improvement projects. In recognition of the financial conditions in Puerto Rico, the U.S. government agreed to waive payment of civil penalties.

But tropical storms and hurricanes put so much stress on infrastructure that it can be difficult to fortify them, even when money isn’t tight, civil engineers said. And, compared to most municipal water authorities, Puerto Rico’s PRASA is much, much larger.

“PRASA has eight dams and reservoirs and 114 water-treatment plants,” said Melissa Pomales, a civil engineer for Arcadis, based in Puerto Rico. “They also have 51 waste water treatment plants and over 20,000 miles of water and sewer pipes.”

Between 2005 and 2015, PRASA invested about $3 billion in capital improvements to bring itself back into regulatory compliance, Pomales said.

“But since 2015, the government hasn’t had access to the financial markets to lend them the money,” she told Bloomberg BNA.

The main problem now, said Pomales, is simply getting gasoline and wireless communications necessary to conduct damage assessments before treatment plants can resume pumping water.

‘All Been Blown Away’

Puerto Rico declared a form of bankruptcy in May, facing a crushing multi-billion-dollar debt load following years of financial mismanagement. For the past decade, the government hasn’t had the funds to pay its creditors or improve its aging infrastructure, let alone deal with the consequences of a major hurricane.

“Many times, when public utilities get into trouble, they quit funding maintenance and Puerto Rico has been failing to fund infrastructure for about 15 years now,” said Brookings Institution Economist Barry Bosworth.

“I think they were starting to at least develop a plan to reduce costs and prioritize new spending,” Bosworth told Bloomberg BNA, “but that’s all been blown away now.”

The extended public debt crises had already cast a pall over the island’s economic future. But Bosworth notes that none of that should factor into providing people with the aid they need to survive and start to rebuild.

Island Isolation

Yet, even with FEMA able to provide an infusion of capital and equipment, the problem going forward might turn on whether people are willing to come to assist with the recovery, according to Bosworth.

“Think about what happens when we see hurricanes hit the mainland,” he said. “Utility companies from states all across the country send in resources and workers—those companies might be hesitant to send their staff down to Puerto Rico to help, because they’re worried they might not get paid back for that work.”

Under normal circumstances, municipalities might split the cost of disaster recovery 25–75 percent, with the government picking up the larger share, he said.

In the case of Puerto Rico, the only realistic way forward now is for the U.S. government to simply give the island the money to rebuild, no strings attached, according to Bosworth.

Appropriation From Congress

The momentum for an emergency funding bill for Puerto Rico is growing on Capitol Hill. Republicans in both chambers said Congress will have to act quickly to respond to the widespread destruction the hurricane caused.

GOP leaders in the House are preparing a bill similar to the one that was passed earlier this summer to help mainland U.S. communities in response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, according to Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio). He also told Bloomberg BNA that congressional leaders are waiting to hear from FEMA and other federal agencies about what types of aid will be needed on Puerto Rico.

That process is being complicated, however, by the massive logistical problems the storm triggered on the island including gasoline shortages and damaged roads. For example, disaster specialists from the Army Corps of Engineers have had a difficult time responding to congressional inquires because of downed communications infrastructure, according to Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.).

‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’

Mast also told Bloomberg BNA that the Coast Guard is having trouble sending flights to Puerto Rico as “we can’t even get on the ground because they’re worried about places where martial law is in place.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), floated the idea of extending ultra-low interest loans to the island. But it’s unclear how much capacity the local government has to take on more debt at any interest rate.

“Puerto Rico, its government, and its people are between a rock and a hard place,” Sen. Tom Carper, (D-Del.), told Bloomberg BNA. “They deserve our help and we need to provide it.”

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Democratic leader in the Senate, said Congress should be talking about grants, not loans.

“Low-interest loans are down the road,” he told reporters. “They need help now.”

—With assistance from Dean Scott

To contact the reporters on this story: Adam Allington in Washington at aallington@bna.com; David Schultz in Washington at dschultz@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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