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Water And Solid Waste Management Biggest Environmental Woes

Implementation of environmental regulations still a problem


January 27, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Water remains the biggest environmental problem facing Puerto Rico, with solid waste management a close second.

According to the U.S. Geological Service (USGS), the island is quickly approaching the limits of its current capacity to produce potable water. The agency points out the need to fix the leaks in the system that is wasting between 40% and 50% of treated water, and/or build more reservoirs. The Aqueduct & Sewer Authority, which last year reverted to government management after a failed eight-year experiment with privatization, has made plans to do both. The planned reservoirs would all be built off rivers to avoid affecting the upstream ecology of the waterways.

In solid waste management, the island is rapidly running out of landfill space. The government has come up with a "Strategic Plan for the Management of Solid Waste in Puerto Rico" that envisions spending $1.4 billion over 20 years to increase recycling by encouraging municipalities to develop their own recycling programs and to extend the life span of existing landfills. Despite having set a goal to recycling 35% of the island’s waste by 2006–the goal has been revised twice–the recycling rate hovers around 10% compared to 27% in Florida, 43% in California, and 57% in New Jersey.

According to Rosario Pavón, district manager for Waste Management of Puerto Rico, solid waste management suffers from the lack of a local market for recycled materials especially plastics and glass. "What’s needed are industries that use the recycled materials as raw material for products," said Pavón. "Recycling is almost always subsidized by the government until it can run on its own."

According to a study prepared by A.T. Kearney Management Consultants, Puerto Rico has comprehensive federal and Commonwealth laws and institutions to manage environmental quality, but implementation and compliance remain problems. According to the report, Puerto Rico has a lot going for it environmentally. The island’s climate, geography, and biodiversity make it home to a range of important ecosystems and extensive legal and regulatory institutions exist to manage environmental quality. In addition, Puerto Rico is estimated to lie on the "clean path" of environmental development, and public awareness and participation in environmental issues is increasing.

However, by many measures, environmental quality is still unacceptable. As a result of construction in watershed areas, and the discharge of waste into surface water and contamination of aquifers, less than 20% of the population receives drinking water that meets all health-based safety standards. Some 40% of surface water doesn’t meet water quality standards, and the USGS has identified 19 places on the island where the aquifers are badly contaminated. Soil erosion and poor management mean 27% of landfills are in poor condition. A large number of covert landfills also exist.

Heavy dependence on oil and old facilities for electricity generation, along with high density of automobiles, has resulted in many areas receiving failing grades for air quality. Poor treatment of solid waste and lack of monitoring has resulted in contamination of beaches while sewage discharges into the ocean have resulted in the decline of coral population. Puerto Rico has a low percentage of protected land when compared to other countries. Puerto Rico’s protected land is 3.5% compared to 11.5% in the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, 23% in Costa Rica, and 25.9% in the U.S. mainland. Puerto Rico’s high population density increases impact on the natural environment. Puerto Rico’s population density is 427 per square mile, compared to 30 for the U.S., 56 for Ireland, 179 for the Dominican Republic, and 628 for Taiwan.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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