Puerto Rico Braces for Environmental Problems After Irma

By David Schultz

Federal and local officials in Puerto Rico are concerned that underfunded environmental agencies on the island will face significant new challenges as a result of Hurricane Irma, expected to hit the island late Sept. 6.

One of the primary problems that could arise is the failure of the island’s drinking water and wastewater pumping systems as a result of widespread power outages. Jenniffer Gonzalez-Colon—Puerto Rico’s non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress—told Bloomberg BNA that some rural areas on the island could lose power for months as a result of Irma, a storm with winds clocking above 180 miles per hour.

“We’ve never been hit by a hurricane with these kinds of winds before, ever,” Gonzalez-Colon, a Republican, said.

Most pumping stations in Puerto Rico and elsewhere are run on electric power, making a power outage a major problem for water infrastructure. Hurricane Harvey led officials in Texas to issue 170 boil water notices across the state, only three-fourths of which had been rescinded as of Sept. 5, according to data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Gonzalez-Colon said the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, or PRASA, the island’s main water utility, has more than 500 emergency generators at its disposal. However, she said, it’s possible some of these generators may not perform as well as others, making the storm a major test of PRASA’s emergency planning.

Long Term Rebuilding?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it is ready to send staffers into Puerto Rico—as well as any other states affected by Irma—to inspect drinking water and wastewater facilities for damage. The EPA also conducted pre-storm assessments of 23 Superfund sites across the island and plans to return to those sites as soon as possible after the storm to identify damage.Ruth Santiago, an attorney and environmental activist in Puerto Rico, said she expects Puerto Rico’s local government, along with federal disaster officials, to work toward getting its water systems back up and running as quickly as possible. However, she said she hopes they also go beyond simply reconnecting the water to address the deluge of polluted storm water runoff that will be flowing into the island’s aquifers.

“We’re assuming we’re going to have lots of water shutoffs,” Santiago told Bloomberg BNA. “It may be quickly reestablished, but we may have lots of water quality problems.”

She said addressing these water quality problems is likely not something that Puerto Rico’s local government can accomplish on its own, given its crippling, long-term debt problems. PRASA has been unable to borrow money from the private bond market for years and was recently cut off from a federal water infrastructure loan program.

—With assistance from Sylvia Carignan.

To contact the reporter on this story: 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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