Caribbean Matters: EPA’s Michael Regan takes ‘Journey to Justice Tour’ to Puerto Rico

Caribbean Matters: EPA’s Michael Regan takes ‘Journey to Justice Tour’ to Puerto Rico

Back in November 2021, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael S. Regan embarked on a Journey to Justice tour of historically marginalized communities in the southern United States. In July of this year, he took the latest leg of the tour to Puerto Rico. There, he met with community groups and environmental activists and visited areas of the island still struggling to recover from 2017’s Hurricane Maria. Those residents face issues of industrial pollution and lack of clean water access. Regan, 45, also announced Biden administration funds available via the infrastructure law passed in November, which includes $78 million for projects addressing severely polluted waterways and enhancing access to safe drinking water.

Regan used Twitter to document his travels across the island. Join me in taking a look at that journey.   

Caribbean Matters is a weekly series from Daily Kos. If you are unfamiliar with the region, check out Caribbean Matters: Getting to know the countries of the Caribbean.

Regan, the first Black man to hold the role of EPA administrator, posted a video recap of the tour in this summary posted on Aug. 1.

A powerful visit to Puerto Rico. The #JourneytoJustice continues. Let’s go! 👍🏾🌎

— Michael Regan, U.S. EPA (@EPAMichaelRegan) August 2, 2022

Valerie Volcovici covered Regan’s trip for Reuters.

President Joe Biden has often cited protecting poor and minority communities from industrial pollution as a top priority and has pledged that 40% of federal clean energy investments will be channeled to the cause.

“We are hearing about environmental injustices that have been happening for decades that we need to resolve urgently,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan told Reuters during his trip. “And now we have the resources and the will to begin to address some of these concerns,” he said.

Regan’s trip, the fourth in his series of environmental justice tours, included a visit to the polluted Caño Martín Peña tidal channel in the San Juan Bay Estuary, and a neighborhood near a coal-powered generator operated by AES Corp (AES.N) in the south of the island where residents complain of the impacts of coal ash.

“We hope we will finally be heard,” Wanda Figueroa, a resident of the Cataño community in San Juan, told Regan, detailing their exposure to sewage runoff. “I do not want to leave my grandchildren with a community that is getting worse.”

NBC Latino posted a report via the Associated Press noting that Regan stated: “These are the same communities that are on the front line, facing the impact of climate change.”

Regan’s first stop will be Tuesday at the Cano Martín Peña, considered one of Puerto Rico’s most polluted waterways. It is part of the San Juan Bay Estuary and is home to more than 25,000 people descended from impoverished migrants who arrived in the mid-1900s from the island’s rural areas.

Community leader Lucy Cruz told AP that while federal and local officials have made funds available to clean the waterway and reduce flooding, problems include the lack of a sewage system. “This would not only be a change for the Cano Martín Peña community, but for all of Puerto Rico,” she said.

On Wednesday, Regan is expected to visit at least two community drinking water systems in the northern city of Caguas and talk with residents about the challenges they face.

He also is scheduled to stop at a facility in southern Puerto Rico that burns coal to produce energy and has long been the source of complaints and health concerns for those living nearby.

Alan Nunez, writing for Al Día, pointed out that Regan’s visit brings hope to long-suffering residents.

Many residents of Puerto Rico are hoping a visit from Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan this week will bring much needed change to the island that has suffered significantly since Hurricane Maria struck nearly five years ago.

In the time since, water insecurity and water and air pollution have plagued the island, as the Biden administration looks to do more in comparison to the Trump administration.

Amid the announcement from the Biden Administration of an investment of $132 million over the next five years, Regan was optimistic.

“I’m engaging directly with communities who will benefit from the work we will do thanks to President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the message is clear — it’s about time,” said Regan. “Communities have been waiting for far too long. This funding is an important investment in equity, clean water and resilience for some of our most treasured water resources.”

This tweet from Regan maps out his itinerary.

Comenzando la próxima parada de mi viaje #JourneytoJustice: Puerto Rico 🇵🇷 Over the next few days, I’ll be visiting parts of the island that have faced environmental injustices for decades. I’m here to listen and learn from the community as we chart our path forward.

— Michael Regan, U.S. EPA (@EPAMichaelRegan) July 26, 2022

Caño Martín Peña (the Martín Peña Channel) was Regan’s first stop.

The Martín Peña Channel is a 3.75 mile long tidal channel located within the San Juan Bay National Estuary in Puerto Rico, the only tropical estuary within the National Estuary Program.

During the early 20th century, substandard dwellings were built in the mangrove wetlands bordering the channel, which used refuse and debris as fill material. The channel is clogged with debris, sediment, and organic waste. Over 3,000 structures still discharge raw sewage into the remains of the channel. The lack of adequate sewer and storm water systems has led to flooding, exposing 27,000 residents to polluted waters and sediments.

The 2012 documentary Agua Mala (Bad Water) is in Spanish with English subtitles. In just 15 minutes, it offers a graphic look at the abominable conditions for people living by the canal.

Agua Mala (2012) presents a compilation of evidence of the contamination of the Caño Martín Peña in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It also exposes the efforts of leaders and residents of the communities surrounding the Caño, as well as the Proyecto Enlace del Caño Martín Peña and the G8, Inc. to improve the quality of life in the Santurce area. This documentary was made for these two entities. The first is a community-based public corporation, and the second is a non-profit organization. In a joint effort, they fight for the environmental and urban restoration of the area.  The documentary was produced by students of the Digital Documentary Film Production course of Profa. María Teresa Previdi from the Department of Communication at the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón (USC)

Reagan’s trip, 10 years after the documentary was made, finds the same conditions.

On our boat tour today, we saw a site where raw sewage was flowing directly into the water and homes along the banks that flood regularly with this dirty water. #JourneytoJustice

— Michael Regan, U.S. EPA (@EPAMichaelRegan) July 26, 2022

At long last there is hope for this community with the infusion of funding from the Biden administration.

The communities within the Estuary have been been waiting for far too long for action, but these funds will advance environmental justice and climate resilience efforts. #JourneytoJustice

— Michael Regan, U.S. EPA (@EPAMichaelRegan) July 27, 2022

No matter where the Journey to Justice tour takes him, a key part of Regan’s tour is listening to those most affected by environmental crises.

Thanks to the perseverance of community leaders, they are making real progress to clean up the Caño Martín Peña. I am grateful for those who shared their stories with me. Stories of suffering and injustice. But also stories of resilience and hope. #JourneytoJustice

— Michael Regan, U.S. EPA (@EPAMichaelRegan) July 27, 2022

Regan’s next stop was to one of the most toxic areas of the island: Guayama.

Communities near the AES power plant in Guayama have been overburdened with pollution for too long. I spent time today hearing from nearby residents on their concerns with the pollution — from the air they breathe to the water they drink. #JourneytoJustice

— Michael Regan, U.S. EPA (@EPAMichaelRegan) July 28, 2022

A 2021 article by Hilda Lloréns writing for the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) Report details the conditions in Guayama, and the “toxic racism” that allows them to persist.

In Jobos Bay, Afro-Puerto Rican communities living in the shadow of two polluting power plants fight for the right to a safe environment.

The gentle descent from Puerto Rico’s central mountains into the southern coastal plain offers a spectacular seaside vista. It is a panoramic view of a seemingly vast Caribbean Sea in varying hues of tropical blues with lush-green, jewel-like keys dotting the sparkling Jobos Bay. This arid coast, with its low-growing grasses, verdant fruit trees, and wetlands and mangroves bordering the shore, is often framed by an expanse of cloudless blue sky. Every single time I descend I am awed by the beauty of the region my family calls home. …

As you drive closer, details of human activity along the coast begin to emerge: neatly aligned row housing, boats of varying sizes in the sea, and expanses of reddish soil ready for cultivation. There are also industrial smokestacks, chutes and tanks, factories, power plants, and two large mounds: one of shimmering raw coal and a second even bigger one made up of dull gray, toxic coal ash. This region was once the site of expansive sugarcane plantations, and ruins of this sugar past remain in the landscape like specters haunting residents. For some, the memories are remnants of a golden, prosperous, bygone era; for others, they are reminders of sunup-to-sundown work in the hot and humid fields that was often accompanied with hunger, poverty, and premature death.

In 2021, residents of Puerto Rico’s Jobos Bay are experiencing a version of this climate apartheid. Perhaps uncoincidentally, on December 10, 2017, Alston visited Jobos Bay communities to witness the impacts of Puerto Rico’s centralized fossil-fired energy generation in the wake of Hurricane María. The area is home to both the Aguirre Power Complex, which produces energy by burning diesel and bunker C oil, and a coal-fired power plant owned by AES Corporation, a power generation company headquartered in Virginia. Alston heard residents’ testimonies about their experiences with environmental injustice, racism, and poverty. “Community members noted severe negative impacts on their health and economic activities; neither federal nor local authorities had taken action,” stated the rapporteur’s final report. Yet as interest in Puerto Rico’s post-hurricane reality wanes, Jobos Bay residents continue to drift in the tides of the climate crisis. Ninety seven percent of the archipelago’s electricity is produced using dirty and highly contaminating fossil fuels, which generate harmful consequences for both residents and the local ecosystem.

Regan vowed to pressure AES to comply with laws, citing recent violations levied against the company.

I hope this #JourneytoJustice tour and my conversations can build on progress that my @EPAregion2 colleagues have already made in ensuring the facility complies with environmental laws.

— Michael Regan, U.S. EPA (@EPAMichaelRegan) July 28, 2022

RELATED STORY: EPA hopes potential new coal industry regulations will hasten plant shutdowns

In the wake of Hurricane Maria, many articles and studies about Puerto Rico’s water systems emerged, like this one from the Natural Resources Defense Council written in 2018 by Mekela Panditharatne.

Small water systems in Puerto Rico tend to be found in remote and rural areas, which were hard hit by Hurricane Maria. How badly were they affected by the storm? NRDC has obtained the results of an assessment of 237 small, independent water systems conducted by EPA after Maria, serving a total population of about 89,100 people. These assessments were conducted in November and December 2017. They show that nearly half of the small systems—at least about 48 percent of those that reported—suffered from a significant deterioration in operational capacity several months after the storm, in some cases leading to a total inability to deliver water to residents. […]

The majority of Puerto Rico’s population is served by water systems operated by the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (“PRASA”). Cities served by PRASA water systems have enjoyed the bulk of the hurricane coverage, simply because more is known about the damage inflicted to these water supplies. However smaller, independent community water systems (“non-PRASA systems”) have faced unique challenges after Hurricane Maria. These systems have historically struggled to comply with safe drinking water standards, particularly for coliform bacteria and turbidity. The communities they serve face a severe lack of technical and financial capacity to redress long-standing issues and remedy storm damage to water supplies.

Caguas is just one place in Puerto Rico that is attempting to cope with water delivery via community water systems. Regan paid the community a visit.

These community water systems have unique challenges and many struggle to meet Safe Drinking Water Act standards. With increased storms, some areas are left without electricity and can’t power the systems. Many can’t afford the necessary upgrades to provide high-quality water.

— Michael Regan, U.S. EPA (@EPAMichaelRegan) July 27, 2022

Everyone deserves reliable access to safe water. That’s why @EPA is working to provide these community-created water systems with the resources they need — from technical assistance to grant funding. Thank you to those who shared their stories with me today! #JourneytoJustice

— Michael Regan, U.S. EPA (@EPAMichaelRegan) July 27, 2022

It was great to follow Regan on his journey around Puerto Rico, and to watch him interact with those directly affected by the environmental hazards harming the island. I look forward to seeing the results of the infusion of federal funds, money that has been sorely needed for far too long. Keep an eye out for more updates in the future.

Until then, please join me in the comments for even more Caribbean news and views.

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