WASHINGTON (CN) — The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit Thursday afternoon on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency calling for Toa Alta, Puerto Rico, to stop disposing waste at its landfill.
The suit alleges that the landfill violates a 2017 administrative order from the EPA under the Resource Conservation Recovery Act, which grants the agency authority to control how hazardous waste is disposed. The order outlined several environmental risks present at the landfill for the city to address.
The EPA said the landfill must cease operations by Dec. 31, 2017, but the city has not complied. It also hasn’t met other requirements set out in the order, according to the lawsuit.
“Toa Alta has not installed fencing or other controls limiting access to the landfill by scavengers and others,” the suit states, despite there being over 100 homes within 1,300 feet of the landfill.
It also points out that an 11-acre sinkhole hasn’t been lined properly in order to prevent leachate, or water that’s been contaminated by heavy metals and pathogens found in waste, from leaking into the city’s water supply.
“The landfill releases an estimated 12 to 20 million gallons of leachate per year,” the lawsuit states.
Puerto Rico has been dealing with a waste management crisis for years. Toa Alta’s landfill is one of 29 spread across the islands, but their water-logged location means that the trash has nowhere to go. It doesn’t help that most of the landfills are over capacity.
The crisis was exacerbated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. That year, Puerto Rico’s Solid Waste Authority estimated that 6.2 million cubic yards of trash was created by the disaster—about 43 football stadiums of waste, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
One solution proposed by experts is to invest more in Puerto Rico’s recycling capabilities. Mark Lichtenstein, the former CEO and president of the National Recycling Coalition, told WasteDive that Puerto Rico has “some of the best recycling facilities I’ve seen.” But they’re disconnected from one another, and not part of a broader, territory-wide recycling apparatus. According to the Puerto Rico Recycling Partnership, only up to 14% of the island’s waste is recycled.
Waste management is just one issue that’s arisen out of the region’s infrastructure, which is “reaching the end of its useful life,” according to a report card by the American Society of Civil Engineers, which graded Puerto Rico’s infrastructure a D-.
In 2016, the EPA released a report outlining the issues plaguing Puerto Rico’s landfills. The agency had begun gradually closing landfills in order to mitigate the environmental damage done, and by that time they’d already closed 12 of them.
But the trash crisis has only been compounded by other surrounding issues, like Puerto Rico’s ongoing budget crisis. The government filed for bankruptcy in 2017 after struggling with debt for over a decade. The economic crisis made routine maintenance more costly, even before Hurricane Maria severely damaged roads and created more debris.
The EPA’s lawsuit cites the presence of toxins as one of the major threats posed by the landfill.
“The municipality of Toa Alta is taking inadequate action to prevent large quantities of leachate — water mixed with hazardous pollutants that seeps from the landfill — from escaping into nearby neighborhoods, surface waters and the underlying groundwater aquifer,” the agency said in a press release.
It also warns that the landfill’s slopes could collapse and harm nearby residents, and pointed to a lack in proper maintenance procedures to prevent spread of diseases like dengue and Zika virus.
In 2017, the EPA found that Toa Alta’s landfill alone contained at least 30 million pounds of hazardous waste. And much of that trash contains toxins, like leachate.
“The Toa Alta landfill poses a significant threat to the health of nearby communities and the local groundwater aquifer, and the municipality should stop disposing of waste there immediately,” EPA acting Regional Administrator Walter Mugdan said in a statement.
The EPA says the crisis has become a public health emergency. Trash piles up in soccer fields, fetid puddles pool together in quiet neighborhoods, and locals worry that the contamination is worsening, if not causing, cancer. If the government doesn’t come up with a viable solution, the island may literally be overrun by trash.
The agency is seeking civil penalties and injunctive relief requiring Toa Alta to address the hazards outlined in both the administrative order and the suit.