Environmental impact feared in generator-dependent Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN – Environmental dangers after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico didn’t end with the storm’s passage. The island now faces another set of challenges, among them the widespread use of generators by businesses, homes and others, and the emissions associated with their usage.
On a local level, and even though there are no official estimates, over the past week generators have become one of the most sought-after items after nearly a month without electric service. However, until now authorities have not issued any guidance regarding their usage by the public. Meanwhile, over different parts of the island, a dense cloud of smog lingers.
Even though modern generators are equipped with filters and catalysts that reduce emissions, older models tend to emit 200 to 400 times more nitrogen oxide (emissions associated with smog) per megawatt than natural gas generators and 10 times more than a carbon plant, according to information published by the Department of Environmental Protection of New Jersey in 2012.
The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine also states that fuel emissions contain more than 40 air contaminants, including substances suspected of causing cancer such as arsenic and benzene, among others. It also contains dangerous environmental contaminants like nitrogen oxide, currently considered one of the most harmful to the ozone layer, which is vital because ir absorbs most of the sun’s radiation.
International experts also indicate that as people breathe in these emissions, small particles and toxic gases from fuel lodge onto their lungs. They also estimate that being exposed to these gases over short periods of time may cause headaches, nausea, chest pain, wheezing, coughing, and irritate the eyes, nose and throat.
Dr. Pablo Méndez Lázaro, coordinator of the Environmental Health master’s program at the Medical Sciences campus, assured Caribbean Business that the suspect smog over the metropolitan area could be directly related to the indiscriminate use of generators and may result in serious harm to both public health and the environment.
“Definitely the indiscriminate use of electric generators is a public health and environmental hazard which is affecting the quality of the air. These generators are designed to be used for a short period of time. But because of the state of emergency that the island is living through their use has been prolonged. These generators are distributed throughout the city in places where large sources of emissions didn’t exist,” the professor said.
“Even though we don’t have data right now to sustain this, I’m sure that because of the precarious state of the island the amount of power generators distributed throughout the city is affecting air quality,” he added.
The expert clarified that the problem is limited to single-family households and businesses, but also by emissions from generators used by the government to power the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority’s (Prapa) pump system, telecommunication antennas, hospitals, schools and other facilities.
Dr. Olga Mayol Bracero, an expert in African dust and anthropogenic air contamination, assured that the smog over San Juan is directly related to emissions associated with the generation of electricity with fossil fuels.
In the same way, and even though it is not his area of expertise, Dr. Benjamín Bolaños, an associate professor at the University of Puerto Rico’s Microbiology Department, indicated that he is worried that the dense fog is related to the emissions problems related to excessive use of generators.
“I’ve noticed a grey cloud that wasn’t there before the hurricane. In part, it could be due to the low level…of Sahara dust we’ve had since the hurricane, but it could also be diesel emissions from power generators working 24 hours a day. There are days when we have a film of ash or soot that extends beyond the peak hours of traffic, especially on calm days with little breeze or wind to disperse it,” Bolaños said.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United States has more than 12 million portable to midsize generators. An agency report says these can have the same harmful environmental impact as large generators, as well as causing noise pollution.
No monitoring by the Environmental Quality Board
The manager of the Air Quality Division at the Environmental Quality Board, Lizbeth San Miguel, indicated that at this time the monitoring network the agency uses to ensure air quality on the island is down due to the destruction caused by the hurricane.
The official explained, though, that these generators are regulated by the agency through the Regulation for the Control of Atmospheric Contamination and its Resolution 1722. However, since the state of emergency began, the regulation has not been enforced.
“Right now our monitoring network is down, which is how we monitor the air quality of the island. All of our instruments require electricity to function. With this equipment we measure CO2, PM10 [particulate matter smaller than 10 microns], PM 2.5, ozone, but these all depend on electric power to work,” explained San Miguel, adding that the EQB is investigating complaints related to generator emissions but was unable to give precise numbers.
“Right now, those people that don’t have permission to use a generator can use it during the emergency without the required permit since right not the regulation is not in effect,” she added.
However, San Miguel explained that the generators with 10 horsepower or less are not regulated by the Environmental Quality Board nor the EPA. For those that are 20 horsepower or more, there are different requirement, such as having to register usage time and fuel consumption.