Nearly one month after Hurricane Maria swept across Puerto Rico, experts and officials tasked with the island’s recovery efforts worry that the environmental impact of the storm could be unprecedented in its breath and complexity.
“People in the U.S. can’t comprehend the scale and scope of what’s needed,” ecologist Drew Koslow explained in a new AP investigation into the island’s rebuilding progress.
As of last week, EPA officials confirmed to the AP that they still had not been able to inspect five of the island’s 18 hazardous Superfund sites, despite reports that Puerto Ricans had begun drinking potentially contaminated water from those areas. In addition, the island is home to dozens more toxic dump sites, and, per a 2016 EPA report, had 29 operating landfills “the majority of which are beyond capacity.
In addition to the hazards posed by storm-damaged superfund sites, many of Puerto Rico’s sewer treatment plants were knocked offline following the hurricane, leading to sewage and waste seeping into natural water supplies, including a waterway that empties into one of the capital city of San Juan’s main reservoirs.
“We’re not going anywhere near it,” resident Edwin Felix said to the AP.
The result is an island full of environmentally catastrophic time bombs, all of which have created a potentially perfect storm of contamination.
“I just wish we had more resources to deal with it,” EPA deputy regional administrator Catherine McCabe told the AP.
Despite an exponential leap in the number of EPA staff on the island in recent weeks (45 people in the two weeks after the storm has nearly doubled to 85 as of this past Sunday) the full scale of Puerto Rico’s environmental crisis is still being determined as more sites are inspected.
“I think this will be the most challenging environmental response after a hurricane that our country has ever seen,” former EPA administrator Judith Enck told the AP.
According to the government, more than a quarter of Puerto Ricans are still without access to clean drinking water, and nearly 90% don’t have electricity.