Puerto Rico Landfill Problems: All You Need to Know

Published May 09, 2022

According to a study commissioned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and conducted by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Puerto Rico could run out of landfill space in 2-4 years. This long-identified capacity issue has been exacerbated by tonnes of debris left behind by two back-to-back hurricanes that devastated the region in 2017.

However, at least two big Puerto Rican waste companies believe that insufficient capacity is not the underlying issue. The largest sites claim that they can probably take in the trash for more than 30 years. They claim that the problems are primarily related to compliance and poor management, which seem to be the result of limited resources. Continue reading to learn more about the landfill issues in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico Landfill Situation

Randy Jensen, president, and CEO of EC Waste says, “There is an absolute landfill crisis in Puerto Rico, but it’s not air space. It is that we still allow 22 unlined dumps to accept waste. While we do have regulations, enforcement on the island is not consistent. I believe more consistent enforcement needs to occur across all waste receiving sites.”

Municipalities own the majority of landfills. And, for the most part, they are allowed to operate as they please, according to Carlos Contreras, CEO, and president of Consolidated Waste Services, which manages five landfills serving 19 jurisdictions. Some of the landfills he manages are lined, but not all.
Operators of pre-Subtitle D sites are permitted by law to add lined cells if the remaining unlined portion of the site is closed. Because it has already been determined that this space complies with a permitted use, expansion must take place within the landfill's original footprint. According to Ivelisse Estrada, president of Ecosystems, Inc., many Puerto Rican operators who are adding lined cells are not closing the unlined portions, and sometimes those cells remain active.

Another issue appears to be the slow pace of administrative progress. Contreras claims he has two landfills that need to be expanded for Subtitle D lined portions and has been waiting for permit approval for four years.

The time lag and issues that allow non-compliant landfills to operate are mainly due to the lack of funding and technical expertise.

According to some of the region's operators, another issue is the uneven distribution of facilities, which has resulted in an uneven playing field. Most landfills in the northeastern part of the island have reached capacity and closed, and this is where the majority of the waste is produced. There are a lot of sites in the southwest, but there isn't a lot of waste. Competition is fierce in the southwest, with operators lowering their tip fees so low that they are forced to invest in resources to meet Subtitle D regulations.

Meanwhile, according to the CEO of EC waste, Puerto Rico has nearly 100 million cubic yards of compliant air space and nearly 40 million cubic yards available for expansion (equating to more than 140 million tonnes total).

The Solution to Puerto Rico Landfill Problem

The EPA's Caribbean Environmental Protection Division is assisting with recovery funding and is collaborating with local and federal partners to identify recycling mechanisms for demolition materials.

The US EPA is assisting the Puerto Rican government as well in reviewing and permitting new compliant landfill cells. The EPA had also issued consent orders to some non-compliant landfills, for example, informing them that they must install interim covers and/or EPA-approved groundwater monitoring systems by specific dates or face penalties.

Smaller landfills that are not in compliance will be forced to close in five to seven years due to overflooding of waste. Contreras believes that there will be more fair competition as a result. Nonetheless, some non-compliant large sites may continue to accept waste in the future.

EPA Files Complaint against Puerto Rico Municipality over Landfill

The United States Department of Justice lodged a complaint in the District of Puerto Rico on February 25, 2021, on behalf of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) demanding that the municipality of Toa Alta stop disposing of solid waste at its landfill and take action to address public health and environmental threats posed by hazardous conditions at the landfill, which is being operated in violation of federal and commonwealth solid waste laws.

The complaint also requests that the court order the municipality of Toa Alta to pay civil penalties for violating an EPA order issued in 2017 that addressed issues at the landfill.

According to the complaint, the landfill poses three major threats:

  • Toa Alta's municipality is taking insufficient measures to prevent large amounts of leachate – water mixed with harmful pollutants that seep from the landfill – from escaping into nearby neighborhoods, surface waters, and the underlying groundwater aquifer.
  • The slopes of the landfill in certain areas are unstable and may collapse, potentially endangering people that work at the landfill and residents whose homes are near the landfill's foot.
  • The Municipality has not consistently placed required soil on top of waste disposed of at the landfill at the end of each day's disposal activities. The use of this soil cover, also known as daily cover, prevents insects, vermin, birds, and trespassers from accessing landfill waste and aids in the prevention of disease spread, such as the dengue and Zika viruses.

Concerning the problems at this landfill, the EPA is in contact with the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources. The EPA is collaborating with the department to improve solid waste management in Puerto Rico.

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