With two landfills headed towards permanent closure, an updated review of the condition of the island’s landfills couldn’t be more crucial and the Environmental Quality Board is close to having one.
EQB President Laura Vélez said her agency is nearing completion of a survey that will provide a full picture of where Puerto Rico stands in terms of solid waste disposal. In the works for more than a year, it will be completed “soon.”
“The situation with the landfills transcends the government and touches every individual,” she said.
The survey is especially pertinent in view that landfills in Moca and Florida are headed toward “definite closing,” according to the Caribbean Environmental Protection Division, the Environmental Protection Agency’s local office.
The landfill in Florida will cease receiving waste in June 2016. Moca does not have an exact closure date, as the landfill has not reached capacity yet. It will depend on the amount of waste received, said an EPA spokesperson.
These closings are bound to put further pressure on the island’s waste disposal system, which at this moment depends on 28 landfills. All but two are in not in full compliance of federal standards with another nine landfills in partial compliance.
Some municipal landfills facing closure orders have arranged to build or are planning new sections (cells) that would allow them to continue operating while the main landfill closes down. The cells would be in compliance with federal and local environmental rules.
Towns building new landfill cells are Toa Baja and Vega Baja. Work on Toa Baja’s section, which is being built on an 8-acre lot at a cost of $2 million, is 90 percent complete and awaiting final approvals from authorities, according to EPA.
It should be completed by Dec. 31, the deadline for shutting down the main landfill. Vega Baja’s new cell is 60 percent in progress.
Aniano Rivera, executive director of the Solid Waste Management Administration, said 13 municipalities are receiving assistance from his agency to bring landfills into compliance, enabling some towns to add new cells.
Funding available for compliance
Under SWMA’s Operation Compliance, designed to bring municipal landfills up to speed with federal and local environmental rules and extend their useful life, townships are reimbursed by the agency for the cost of meeting compliance requirements, such as installing underground water monitoring systems and controls for runoff, leachate flows and gas emanations.
Townships signed on to the program are: Isabela, Barranquitas, Vieques, Cayey, Guayama, Juncos, Vega Baja, Moca, Santa Isabel, Toa Alta, Toa Baja, and Jayuya.
In all, municipalities were assigned $3.5 million in funding, with Toa Alta getting the highest amount, or $450,000. Moca and Santa Isabel, which received $400,000 and $250,000 respectively, were to use the money to meet EPA’s closure requirements, according to SWMA.
Juncos, which received $107,200, wants to add a new cell but, reportedly, the plan is still at the conception phase.
For landfills facing shutdown, money generated by a new cell will help finance the equally expensive cost of closing down the rest of the landfill, a process that can take months or years, depending on such factors as the condition of the landfill and its location, according to José Font, head of the local EPA office.
Such closings are carefully orchestrated proceedings that involve numerous steps designed to safeguard public health such as capping the landfill, setting up long-term maintenance and monitoring plans, installing equipment to prevent air and groundwater pollution from leachate flow and gas emanations, Font said.
Each step must be carried out within specified deadlines. EQB and EPA carefully oversee the process, with both agencies currently working in a collaborative manner so as to avoid a duplication of efforts, said EQB’s Vélez.
Pressing need for recycling
With fewer landfills to store waste, the need for recycling becomes more pressing.
Font said progress is being made in this area and he pointed to the work carried out by the Puerto Rico Recycling Partnership, a collaboration between the government and private companies, which “has created a platform to discuss recycling in a structured way.”
But he lamented the lack of data, which is preventing to assess “where we are and where we should put our efforts.”
When asked how Puerto Rico can stimulate recycling, currently under 12 percent, EQB’s Vélez offered several ideas.
“To increase the recycling rate we need to take a different approach,” she said.
For one, the island needs to promote recycling as an industry that creates jobs, just like manufacturing. And regionalizing waste management would be a more efficient alternative, according to Vélez.
Ideally, municipalities would get together into consortiums and set up centralized facilities integrating different waste management functions: from removing organic matter and recovering recyclable materials to waste disposal.
Cooperation would ensure the necessary volume of waste to maintain the centers and generate revenue. The idea, she said, has been discussed with SWMA and the Puerto Rico Public-Private Partnerships Authority.