EPA, local gov’t reps discuss island’s environmental challenges
Puerto Rico’s high asthma rates, and recycling and pollution prevention efforts were some of the issues on the agenda of a meeting that took place late last week between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and local government representatives in New York, the agency said Monday.
During the meeting, EPA Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck headed the discussion that also included environmental challenges facing municipal governments in Puerto Rico, and possible solutions.
The municipal and federal officials pledged to work together to reduce pollution, increase recycling and promote environmental stewardship on the island. The environmental problems in Puerto Rico include a high asthma rate, a solid waste crisis and abandoned and potentially contaminated sites that threaten people’s health and prevent redevelopment in many communities.
“There are many environmental health problems in Puerto Rico that need attention,” said Enck. “The island has the highest asthma rate in the nation. There are serious problems with drinking water quality, sewage treatment and waste disposal.”
“At the meeting, the EPA reaffirmed our commitment to work closely with local officials to find solutions to environmental problems that will improve the lives of people throughout the island,” she said.
The prevalence of asthma in the U.S. is 7.9 percent among Hispanic children, but that rate is 16.5 percent among children in Puerto Rico, the agency said. The annual economic cost of asthma, including direct medical costs from hospital stays and indirect costs such as lost school and work days, amounts to approximately $56 billion.
Last month, the EPA joined other federal agencies to unveil the Coordinated Federal Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities. Among the key steps in the action plan is building local capacity to deliver integrated, community-based asthma care systems.
Island representatives in attendance at the meeting were: Mayors Federation Executive Director Reinaldo Paniagua; Mayors Association Executive Director Jaime García; Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration Director John Santana; Rose Mary Arizmendi Figueroa, Director of Public Works, Municipality of Guayama; Basilio de Jesús and William Arroyo from the Mayors Federation; and Francis Torres, Environmental Counsel to both the Mayors Federation and the Mayors Association.
In April 2012, the EPA announced $100,000 in funding to assess the need for a new, independent Children’s Environmental Health Center in Puerto Rico. Through the funding, the Mount Sinai Medical Center and the University of Puerto Rico are working with a number of Commonwealth organizations, community groups and universities, as well as other federal agencies to explore the formation of the children’s health center.
The following month, the agency earmarked $1 million for Desarrollo Integral del Sur, Inc., an organization representing a coalition of Puerto Rico municipalities, for the assessment of abandoned and contaminated sites in Guayanilla, Peñuelas and Ponce.
The funding was awarded through the EPA’s Brownfields Program, which helps communities assess, clean up, redevelop, and reuse contaminated properties. Brownfields are properties at which moderate contamination threatens environmental quality and public health and can interfere with redevelopment.
Meanwhile, on the recycling issue, the estimate is that Puerto Rico’s overall recycling rate is between 8 percent and 12 percent, with specific rates varying by material. To help address this pressing issue, the EPA and the Solid Waste Management Authority launched the Puerto Rico Recycling Partnership with representatives from local municipalities, academia, nonprofits and business sectors to facilitate waste reduction and recycling in the Commonwealth.
The partnership is advancing waste reduction, recycling, and clean composting while bringing recycling jobs to Puerto Rico, the EPA said.