After Maria, Puerto Rico Struggles Under The Weight Of Its Own Garbage
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Puerto Rico is struggling with too much trash. Even before Hurricane Maria hit most of the island's landfills were filled beyond capacity. And the debris and waste from the hurricane have only made the problem worse. NPR's Merrit Kennedy reports.
MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: Outside the capital, San Juan, a suburban soccer field has been transformed into an improvised dump site. Bleachers peek out from the edge of the trash.
Trucks are rolling in. They're filled with debris, tree branches, moldy mattresses. I can see a pink kid's suitcase being unloaded onto a massive pile of garbage in the center of the field. And it's probably about three stories high.
Workmen say this site came to be because the actual landfill is so busy. The wait time can be hours. Just up the road, 25-year-old Lionel Ruiz is the supervisor of that municipal landfill in Toa Baja. He says that last month, they accepted 36,000 tons of waste. That's 70 percent more than the month before the hurricane. Ruiz points to the trucks waiting to dump.
LIONEL RUIZ: It's more busy that usual. You see that line? We never have that line in normal operation.
KENNEDY: Trash from at least four municipalities comes to the landfill, and it already had huge problems before the hurricane. In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered it to close because of environmental risks. Since then, the landfill was allowed to open a new area with a lining to prevent seepage into the ground. But that space is rapidly filling up.
RUIZ: It's near to get full maybe in five year.
KENNEDY: That was Ruiz's estimate before the hurricane, and Maria has sped up the timeline. The story is the same across the lush tropical island of Puerto Rico. Before the hurricane, the EPA had ordered 12 of its approximately 29 landfills to close.
AGUSTIN CARBO: It's a public health issue. And it's about to collapse really soon.
KENNEDY: That's Agustin Carbo. He's the former head of the island's Solid Waste Authority and says Puerto Rico needs to think beyond landfills rather than open new ones. Recycling rates here are about half of what they are on the U.S. mainland.
CARBO: We need to look for different alternatives. I think people need to change their behavior. And it's quite complex how you change that in a small island. But it can be done. People need to understand what's at stake here.
KENNEDY: Back at the landfill, Ruiz is facing very immediate problems. Birds and insects circle around what is currently a hot, rancid open dump.
RUIZ: This is the active area of the landfill. You will see a lot of uncovered material.
KENNEDY: Workers here would normally cover this expansive mess with earth every day to comply with federal regulations. Ruiz says they haven't been able to for a week because the private trucks they usually use are contracted with FEMA. The open garbage is upsetting to people who live down the hill, like 83-year-old Angelo Fernandez.
ANGELO FERNANDEZ: The smell. The stink (laughter).
KENNEDY: In his 41 years living here, he's seen a mountain rise from the ground.
FERNANDEZ: It is getting bigger. It is getting bigger and bigger. That was never this high - never. All the mountains you see there, that's garbage.
KENNEDY: What would it mean to you if it closed?
FERNANDEZ: I think it would be a better place to live. I know. And people, they would get less sick.
KENNEDY: The landfill may be filling up, but it's not clear when it will actually shut down. The EPA hasn't set a hard date. Merrit Kennedy, NPR News, Toa Baja, Puerto Rico.