The Puerto Rican Town Left to Stew in Toxic Waste

The Puerto Rican Town Left to Stew in Toxic Waste
Illustration: Chelsea Beck (Gizmodo Media Group)
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ARECIBO, PUERTO RICO—In the six months since Hurricane Maria, 67-year-old Aileen Román Rodríguez has struggled to rebuild, to re-establish her routine, and to regain a sense of security. Her one-story, concrete-walled home in the seaside town of Arecibo remains largely uninhabitable. Up and down Rodríguez’s street, other residences appear abandoned and rundown.

But Rodríguez’s community is dealing with more than the wreckage left by a powerful Category 4 hurricane. Two and a half miles east of her home lies the Battery Recycling Company Superfund Site, a 16-acre former lead-smelting facility that shut down in 2014, after the Environmental Protection Agency confirmed its 20 years of operations had resulted in toxic levels of heavy metals at and around the site. It flooded during Hurricane Maria, too.

Locals like Rodríguez, along with some scientists, worry the storm could have spread the facility’s pollutants far and wide. The EPA says everything is fine, but history shows that the agency doesn’t always exhibit the best judgment when it comes to this Superfund. Visiting the site on a recent trip, I left with more questions than answers.

What’s clear is that the Battery Recycling Company Superfund—and other industrial sites like it around Arecibo—continue to threaten Rodríguez and her community, in ways that natural disasters will only exacerbate.

Like much of Puerto Rico, Arecibo went dark during Hurricane Maria. Today, power’s mostly back, though the lights still flicker hauntingly here and there, whether you’re enjoying ensalada de pulpo along the beach or sopa de platano at a roadside bar. Restaurant bars, called chinchorros by locals, are pretty packed, especially on the weekends when folks gather to drink locally-brewed beers and unwind from a long week. Residents won’t let the latest disaster keep them from living. “La vida sigue,” they say. Life goes on.

Still, brave words can’t cover up the beachfront properties scattered with broken bricks, or the countless stray dogs wandering aimlessly, perhaps in search of one of the more than 135,000 Puerto Ricans estimated to have fled to the mainland. Driving through the city’s crumbling roads, you risk running into oncoming traffic to avoid the potholes that’ll land your car in a repair shop. That’s when you’re not stuck at an intersection with a dead streetlight, trying to figure out whether it’s your turn to go.

The fact that folks are getting back to their regular routines in spite of the wreckage is a reminder that things were never really “normal” in Arecibo, a community encircled by pollution and where nearly half of the city residents live below the poverty line.

A battery on a beach in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
A battery on a beach in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
Photo: Raul Marrero (Gizmodo Media Group)

Along with the Battery Recycling Company, Arecibo’s history includes chemical manufacturing of Agent Orange, an allegedly law-breaking landfill, a failed sewage system, hazardous waste left behind by pharmaceutical companies, and an active pesticide storage warehouse that’s also a Superfund site. For several years, the city has been trying to convert a rundown, asbestos-laden paper mill into a waste-to-energy incinerator that could become another source of lead emissions. Many of the region’s industrial sites have emitted particulate matter, methane, or other hazardous air pollutants.

All of this industry has taken a toll on the region’s health: The municipality sees childhood asthma rates of around 14 percent, nearly twice the U.S. average. It also experiences higher cancer rates than nearby areas. Many people I met worked in one of the city’s industrial sites or know someone who does, and everyone said they or someone they know suffer from asthma, cancer, or both. Many have seen family members die as result.

Rodríguez developed asthma not long after the Battery Recycling Company popped up. Her daughter suffers from it, too. She remembers the days she’d step out onto her front yard and see clouds of smoke pouring out of the facility. She blames her family’s health issues on the toxic plumes that reached her home.

“A lot of people got sick,” Rodríguez told me outside her home one night. “Asthma’s no good. It’s the worst thing there is.”

Aileen Rodríguez showing how high the water was when it flooded her home during Hurricane Maria.
Aileen Rodríguez showing how high the water was when it flooded her home during Hurricane Maria.
Photo: Raul Marrero (Gizmodo Media Group)

While scoping out the Superfund site and its surrounding area, a man riding a bike approached me. Covered in tattoos, he spoke of the many ways the city’s toxic legacy has left him suffering: mercury poisoning, Agent Orange exposure, and lead. He spent a month working at the Battery Recycling Company before realizing how dangerous his job really was.

That facility has now been closed for years. But its shadow still lingers over the town.

The Battery Recycling Company came to Arecibo in 1994. The only facility in the Caribbean that handled and recycled the lead-acid batteries found in nearly all vehicles, it was hailed as an answer to an increasing waste problem on the island.

Trouble is, when lead battery recycling isn’t done right, the outcome can be catastrophic. The process typically involves crushing the batteries to separate plastics and lead, then using heat to liquefy the metal and refine it for re-use. Without proper controls and regulations, it can result in a lot of toxic emissions, which is exactly what happened at the Battery Recycling Company.

At the height of its operation, the facility was accepting approximately 3,000 tons of spent lead-acid batteries from around the Caribbean each month, according to court filings obtained by Earther. The recycling process converted all this into, on average, nearly 2,000 gallons of lead-filled dust each day, which sat in containers that were left open. As a result of this dust and other emissions, the entire site is now contaminated with lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals.

“This was a major regulatory failure by any standard,” environmental attorney Miguel Sarriera, who is representing seven families suing company executives in the only ongoing lawsuit related to the pollution, told me in his sweltering office in Quebradillas.

Company executives didn’t require employees to wear any protection while handling the lead-acid batteries and their byproducts, according to Sarriera. They also didn’t require employees to wash up before leaving the facility—something that went on at other well-run battery recycling facilities, according to a former supervisor who requested anonymity. As a result, employees took the lead with them from the site to their homes.

Currently, executives deny “any wrongdoing on their part,” Sarriera said.

In 2010 and 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a series of studies testing facility employees for lead poisoning. It was widespread: All 48 employees screened in 2011 had some level of lead in their blood.

“Ladies in the office had more lead in their blood than you would want them to, but the men melting the batteries had much more lead in their blood,” Mary Jean-Brown, who oversaw these studies during her time as chief of the Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch at the CDC, told me.

Many family members weren’t safe, either: Out of the 68 workers’ children ages six or younger tested, 16 percent saw blood lead levels higher than 10 milligrams per deciliter, double what the CDC deems as the public action level. No level of lead in a child’s blood is considered safe.

The Puerto Rican Environmental Quality Board knew the facility wasn’t meeting state and federal regulations in 1996, according to EPA documents. Yet the company continued with business as usual operations. In 2008, the EPA took soil samples between the facility and a nearby cattle pasture that showed dangerous levels of lead. Still, the facility remained open. It wasn’t until the CDC studies concluded in 2011 that the EPA finally conducted lead removals at roughly 150 homes and cars of facility employees. Three years later in 2014, the facility shut down for good.

In July 2017, the EPA added the Battery Recycling Company to its Superfund National Priority List. This makes it the first designated under President Donald Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who has frequently boasted his dedication to the Superfund program.

The EPA informed me that cleanup began last year before Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck. While it’s unclear how long a full remediation will take, other Superfund sites have seen this process drag on for years. In this case, the EPA may have to remove nearly 30,000 cubic yards of soil and asphalt contaminated with lead, arsenic, and antimony, in addition to leftover slag, or toxic waste, from when the plant was in operation.

Adding to an already complex cleanup situation is concern over whether Hurricane Maria caused any of this contaminated material to move beyond the site’s boundaries. As the EPA notes on a fact-sheet about the Superfund, stormwater runoff from the site has previously contaminated a nearby wetland and migrated into an irrigation channel leading to the Caño Tiburones Natural Reserve, home to threatened and endangered species.

In an email, the EPA told me that the site saw “several feet” of flooding during the storm. However, it added there is “no indication that there was significant migration of contamination off-site as a result of hurricanes Irma and Maria.”

The EPA declined to go into detail about how it arrived to this conclusion although it noted it did not conduct any soil sampling during its post-Maria assessment of the site.

Other experts feel that further studies are needed. Benjamín Bostick, a soil scientist with Columbia University, wants to test the waters and soils near Superfund sites around the island, including at the Battery Recycling facility. A description of his proposed project noted that flooding from hurricane Maria “almost certainly spread poisons further.”

Osvaldo Rosario, an environmental chemist who teaches at the University of Puerto Rico, doesn’t doubt for a second that the hurricane waters carried lead off the Superfund site. “Without a doubt, natural disasters, especially hurricanes, aggravate and accelerate the spread of pollutants from a given site,” he told me.

The Battery Recycling Superfund Site
The Battery Recycling Superfund Site
Photo: Raul Marrero (Gizmodo Media Group)

With the EPA’s messy history surrounding this site, residents like Rodríguez are more inclined to agree with the independent experts.

“With everything that happened with Maria, there must be more contaminants because that stuff runs off,” Rodríguez said.

Aleida Centeño, an attorney with the Puerto Rico Legal Services Corp., agreed. “That lead isn’t gone,” she said.

When I dropped by the Battery Recycling Company Superfund site, an EPA trailer sat parked within the fenced property, apparently overseeing the cleanup process. An excavator was digging through red-brown dirt, exposing a pool of water that appeared to stretch at least 20-feet wide.

EPA public affairs official Elías Rodríguez told me in an email that this is one of the site’s two lagoons, which contain water “from the facility’s previous operations.” The agency has “no indication” either of these lagoons overflowed during Hurricane Maria.

The Puerto Rican Environmental Quality Board did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Bostick is still securing funding for his soil and water testing project, but he hopes he can head to Puerto Rico soon to conduct the research. Currently, little data exists on how water or water supplies near Superfund sites are faring in wake of the storm.

“My whole proposal was based around the fact that there’s no public data available about this,” he said.

Arecibo isn’t unique. Across Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria exposed a festering pollution crisis, leaving residents potentially more vulnerable to the contaminants in their backyard. In the municipality of Dorado just west of San Juan, Puerto Ricans desperate for water began to drink from the Dorado Groundwater Contamination Superfund Site immediately following the storm. In the community of Peñuelas, arsenic levels in water wells exploded after Maria, probably due to an unlined coal ash mound that’s been slowly leaching chemicals into the groundwater for years.

Considering the 24 current and former Superfund sites that dot Puerto Rico have all had health and environmental consequences, this is likely just the tip of the iceberg.

Despite the many challenges ahead, residents in pollution-stricken communities are trying to find their groove again. In Arecibo, they mow their lawns. They repaint their city center in bright oranges and blues. They even laid out a sand display when I visited in March that read “Arecibo,” proud of what their city represents: hope.

Aileen Rodríguez stands outside her home with her hands to her chest.
Aileen Rodríguez stands outside her home with her hands to her chest.
Photo: Raul Marrero (Gizmodo Media Group)

Rodríguez wakes up every day on the inflatable mattress she shares with her 24-year-old daughter in the living room of their damaged home and tries to find her new normal. She’s retired, and uses the Social Security she receives to buy what she needs. Is it time to paint? Should she scrub the dirt-stained walls, again? What do her kids need?

Acting like everything’s normal is tough, though. “Sometimes you start to wonder, ‘Is this real? Am I dreaming?’” she said. “But the tears fall, all by themselves, because I start to think about all that’s happening.”

Holding her hands to her chest, Rodríguez reminds me of the trauma she’s survived. Her eyes carry the fear of what may happen when her community is hit by the next storm. She hopes they’re ready.