Southern region of Puerto Rico fights for cleaner air, water – KGET 17

SALINAS, Puerto Rico (AP) — Shuttered windows are a fixture in Salinas, an industrial city on Puerto Rico’s southeastern coast that is considered one of the most polluted regions of the U.S. territory.

For years, toxic ash and harmful chemicals from coal-fired and thermal power plants enveloped this community, and residents complained of health problems ranging from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease.

Then last year, a bombshell: US Environmental Protection Agency officials traveled to Salinas to announce that the city also has one of the highest concentrations of ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing gas, in any US jurisdiction.

“We are fighting many battles,” said José Santiago, a 74-year-old retiree.

Emboldened by the federal government’s attention to Salinas, Santiago and others are demanding a major cleanup and penalties for polluters in the region.

“I’m going to keep fighting until I die,” said Elsa Modesto, a 77-year-old retiree who hasn’t missed an EPA meeting since last year’s announcement. “I want to know what’s in the environment.”

Puerto Rico ranks 22nd out of the 56 US states and territories based on total waste generated per square mile, with 4.2 million pounds. Six of the top 10 municipalities in that category are located in the southern region of Puerto Rico, with Salinas ranked sixth, according to data obtained from the EPA’s Toxin Release Inventory.

Salinas also has one of the highest cancer incidence rates in Puerto Rico, with 140 cases reported in 2019, the most recent data available from the island’s Central Cancer Registry. Salinas has a higher rate than the neighboring city of Guayama, where cases of cancer and other diseases have increased since a coal-fired power plant began operating there in 2002, said Dr. Gerson Jiménez, director of the Mennonite Hospital who testified in public hearings and called for the closure of the factory.

“Physicians working in the southeastern part of Puerto Rico have noticed that since AES Corporation began operating in Guayama, there has been a significant increase in diseases of the respiratory tract, urinary tract, as well as a significant increase in diagnoses of various types of cancer,” he testified at a hearing.

The level of contamination prompted the EPA to test the air and groundwater in Puerto Rico’s southeastern region for the first time, and Administrator Michael Regan said low-income communities and communities of color have suffered unfairly for decades.

Salinas is a city of nearly 26,000 people – 28% of whom identify as Black – with a median household income of $18,000 per year. According to the US Census Bureau, more than half of the population is poor.

The city is nestled between a coal-fired power plant, the island’s two largest thermal power plants, and other industries, including a company that makes thermoset composites, a material used in major appliances like refrigerators. That company, IDI Caribe Inc., is the plant that emits the most emissions in Salinas, according to the EPA.

Overall, styrene and ethylene oxide, a carcinogenic gas, are the two largest chemicals released into the air and water in Salinas, officials say. Salinas and Guayama also have sulfur dioxide levels that exceed the new standards.

Meanwhile, a Puerto Rico Chemistry Association study published in late 2021 found the presence of coal-related heavy metals in Salinas drinking water. The amounts found did not exceed regulatory limits.

Scientists conducting the study were forced to collect samples from individual homes because the government’s water and sewer company at the time blocked access to aquifers that residents rely on in the southeast, environmental activist Víctor Alvarado said. Since then, lawmakers have approved legislation requiring the company to provide access for testing.

Salinas is also home to Steri-Tech, a company that uses ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment. It is a colorless, flammable gas that has a slightly sweet smell and is used to clean about 20 billion sterile medical devices a year. The EPA says short-term exposure to the gas poses no risk, but long-term or lifelong exposure can cause lymphoma, breast cancer and other diseases.

Steri-Tech reported two explosions — one in October and the other earlier this month — that scared residents and raised concerns about whether toxic chemicals had been released.

“My house shook!” said Lillian Melero, a 60-year-old retiree who recalled the blast shattering neighbors’ windows.

Meleroe said she wants answers from federal officials about the contamination in her town. “They write a lot, but I haven’t seen any changes,” she said.

Hoping to reduce his exposure, Santiago, a retiree who lives a few blocks from Steri-Tech, not only closes his windows but also plants avocado trees, small palms and bougainvillea with bright orange and fuchsia flowers to prevent ethylene oxide and other pollutants that enter his home.

Those measures, however, have had limited effect, and residents remain frustrated that their complaints about contamination have been ignored for years.

Tired of fighting pollution at the local level and getting no answers, community leader Wanda Ríos asked for help from the top.

“I’m stopping this at the federal level,” she said. “I’m not wasting my time here in Puerto Rico.”

She said several people in La Margarita, a neighborhood of about 100 people that sits next to Steri-Tech, have died of cancer, including a married couple and others who were part of a residents’ association she founded in recent years. Rios added that Steri-Tech recently organized health workshops for residents.

On Wednesday night, about two dozen Salinas residents gathered to hear the results of air samples taken by the EPA last year, announcing that it had found extremely high concentrations of ethylene oxide in some areas. One area had 121 micrograms per cubic meter of air – more than 400 times the US national average of 0.30 micrograms.

Richard Ruvo, the EPA’s director of air and radiation, said Steri-Tech’s equipment filters out 99% of its emissions, but that’s not enough: “We know more needs to be done to reduce these emissions.”

Officials said the company is working to install equipment that will filter 99.9% of emissions, but it is unclear when that will happen. Ruvo added that other measures to reduce emissions are part of confidential discussions with the company.

Andrés Vivoni, a Steri-Tech representative, did not return a message for comment.

As the closed-door talks continue, the EPA has promised tougher regulations on toxic air emissions across the country by the end of the year. It was welcomed by many in Puerto Rico, which has one of the highest rates of asthma in the US jurisdiction and whose electricity generation system is 97% based on fossil fuels.

Karilyn Bonilla, who is from the community of La Margarita and served as mayor of Salinas for a decade, said she understands the concerns about the pollution. Although she has been the target of protests organized by frustrated residents, she said she is in favor of corrective measures.

“It was a struggle of many years,” she said.

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