Hurricane Debris Puts Mammoth Weight on Landfills
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the July 5 – 11 issue of Caribbean Business.
On an island like Puerto Rico, where data from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates four million tons of solid waste are produced annually, two massive hurricanes have put additional stress on local landfills, placing public attention on the territory’s severe solid waste crisis.
The September 2016 EPA document, “The work of the EPA to address the issue of landfills in Puerto Rico,” states the fiscal crisis in Puerto Rico makes it even more difficult for municipalities to adequately handle their landfills. This problem, according to the official document, is exacerbated by the government’s inability to implement surveillance and compliance programs to manage solid waste because of the fiscal crisis.
The executive director of Puerto Rico’s Solid Waste Management Authority (SWMA), Antonio Ríos Díaz, told Caribbean Business that the amount of debris and waste generated after the emergency produced by hurricanes Irma and Maria have brought local landfills a great amount of duress.
“Definitely, the hurricanes’ impact on Puerto Rico has affected the capacity of these installations. In some cases, possibly, if they had plans to open additional cells, they would have to speed up that date to respond to the impact from the tropical storms,” Ríos Díaz said, although he could not produce exact data about the amount of waste produced after the emergency.
“That is something we are currently working on with the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA], the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers [USACE] and the EPA, but we estimate 6.5 million cubic yards of debris was produced after the emergency, but we have yet to get those numbers. All that waste has been properly handled, but we understand there is more debris left. We will make sure the majority is used to create compost, which is basically what we are focusing on at the moment. But we are still working on the statistics,” he added.
The executive director also explained that all waste generated after the emergency is handled by the SWMA, in accordance with USACE, and under the watchful eye of the EPA. Ríos Díaz added, however, that his agency is mostly handling vegetative material and USACE mostly disposes of more hazardous materials, such as metals and home appliances. “We basically focus on giving priority to vegetative material, and are focusing on handling it in the most sustainable way possible, and what we did was use it to make compost,” the executive director declared.
“In the case of the SWMA, this material was pulverized and initially used to create compost at the Arecibo plant. We also did the same at Caguas, and there was some material we processed at Punta Santiago, in Humacao, which was used at University of Puerto Rico’s Experimental Agriculture Station in Gurabo…. We are creating a pilot project with their collaboration to develop new and more sustainable ways to process vegetative debris, to help us manage it more efficiently, and that will also help on future occasions, because it gives us alternate ways to dispose of waste. For instance, aside from the production of compost, the conditioning of the soil on farms is a better way to dispose of this material,” he added.
Ríos Díaz stressed that for home appliances, their handling requires additional precautions due to their toxic components.
“When we receive that kind of material, we segregate it and give it to USACE. What the SWMA did was ask the EPA for help with the disposal of those materials we considered hazardous. In the case of home appliances, such as air-conditioning units and refrigerators, it is necessary to first remove the freon before we dispose of the appliances because of the environmental hazard it represents,” Ríos Díaz pointed out.
On the other hand, the president of the Environmental Quality Board (EQB), Tania Vázquez Rivera, confirmed through her press office the information provided by the SWMA.
“The debris generated is divided into different types, namely vegetation, construction and demolition material, and recyclable metals. Vegetative material is pulverized and taken to farms across the island to be used as compost. Another part of that waste is destined for beneficial use in the landfill system as daily cover, for slope stabilization and erosion control. The recyclable metals are diverted to metal processing plants to be compacted and recycled,” Vázquez Rivera said, while also estimating that the amount of debris generated after the emergency has consumed a year and a half of the landfills’ useful life.
However, the EQB president assured that all waste- and debris-handling processes have been completed under strict compliance with all federal regulations administered by that agency and in constant communication with FEMA, USACE and the EPA.