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ENVIRONMENT BULLETIN-PUERTO RICO: Businesses And Community Unite Against Waste Dump

Carmelo Ruiz

SALINAS, Aug 29 1998 (IPS) - The citizens and local businesses of Salinas are united in their opposition to the municipal administration’s plans to install a landfill in this town in Puerto Rico’s southern coast.

The landfill, to be built and operated by the US-based Browning Ferris Industries (BFI) corporation, is expected to occupy 162 hectares and receive 700 tonnes of garbage a day.

The opposition is headed by Environmental Dialogue, a Salinas- based grassroots organisation.

One of the group’s most outspoken members is Maria Silvia Garcia, who lives on top of a hill that overlooks the plot of land chosen for the BFI landfill.

Garcia, who at the age of 73 sells lawn mowers, intends to fight BFI to the finish.

She moved to Salinas seven years ago to get away from the noise and crime in the city of Caguas, where she previously lived. “I was tired of all the street noise and having to worry about crime all the time,” she says.

The waste dump’s opponents are concerned about the impact it might have on the area’s underground water.

Its proposed location is directly above an aquifer that is used by local industries, farms and residences.

As a matter of fact, the PR Agriculture Department opposes the landfill project because of the harm it might do to the aquifer underneath.

The aquifer feeds the estuarine system of nearby Jobos Bay, which has a wildlife sanctuary jointly owned by the Puerto Rico and US federal governments. The bay is home to endangered sea mammals, like the manatee and the dolphin.

BFI claims that its landfill will not affect groundwater. However, the consulting firm Scientific and Technical Services Inc. (STS) has studied the location and argues that the landfill’s liners will not remain impermeable forever.

Accoding to STS, the liners can be stretched to the breaking point by the pressure of thousands of tonnes of garbage.

“The liner can even bepenetrated by apparently harmless substances in the garbage, like butter and margarine,” says chemist Neftali Garcia, who heads STS.

Jobos Bay already has its share of pollution problems. It has the Central Aguirre thermoelectric plant, which generates half of the San Juan metro area’s electricity, plus it is within approximately five kilometres of a Phillips Petroleum refinery and several pharmaceutical factories in the neighbouring town of Guayama.

“The communities of Jobos Bay used to have a thriving industry based on coconut and coconut-derived products, but it was destroyed by pollution. Now those people live on government welfare”, says Maria Silvia Garcia as she points to the bay from the hilltop she lives in.

Local environmentalists claim that pollution is already destroying Salinas’ fishing industry.

Because of pollution, the town’s restaurants now get their fish from Santa Isabel, a neighbouring town to the west, and the fishermen are sailing as far as Fajardo, in the island’s east coast, in order to find a healthy catch, say Environmental Dialogue members.

BFI plans to dig the landfill fifty feet into the ground, claiming that the water table is deeper than that. But the project’s opponents say that farmers in that area have found water at 15 metres.

Another issue of contention is air pollution. BFI claims the landfill will not pollute the air, but STS differs.

The consulting firm holds that harmful chemicals like methane and carbon dioxide will emanate from the site. Another air pollution source will be the heavy traffic of trucks coming in and out of the landfill, says STS.

The environmentalists are concerned that the El Coqui community, which is located right between the proposed landfill ad Jobos Bay, will be particularly affected by the project.

“Our community is a flood-prone area. When hurricane Hortense sruck us in 1996, we were under seven feet of water”, says El Coqui resident and Environmental Dialogue member Jose “Cheo” Ortiz, who works at the Central Aguirre power plant. Ortiz fears that a flood could wash the landfill’s contents into El Coqui.

BFI and Salinas mayor Basilio Baerga claim that the landfill will bring great economic benefits to the town, but the community believes the exact opposite. The biggest fear is that it will kill local agriculture, which is a major economic activity in the town.

Right in front of the proposed landfill location are Hacienda Santa Elena and Ganaderias del Sur, two major agribusiness farms owned by the Fonalleda family.

The farms have hundreds of heads of cattle, as well as corn, sorghum and hay plantations.The Fonalledas, a rich land-owning family involved in the development of suburbs and shopping malls in Puerto Rico, fully supports Environmental Dialogue in its effort to stop the BFI landfill. The Fonalleda family intends to spend tens of millions of dollars in a state-of-the-art cattle farm in Hacienda Santa Elena, but that investment depends on how the battle against the landfill turns out.

The area also has a great concentration of poultry farms. The El Hucar poultry farm, which provides 300 direct and indirect jobs, is approximately one kilometre east of the proposed landfill area, directly downwind.

Salinas’s poultry farmers fear that their chickens’ immune systems will be compromised by air pollutants from the landfill and make them susceptible to infectious diseases.

Also downwind from the proposed landfill is the Olympic Village, a major civic and sports centre. The recently deceased German Rieckehof, former head of Puerto Rico’s Olympic Committee, spent his last days and energies fighting the BFI landfill.

The members of Envionmental Dialogue and South Against Pollution (SURCCO), a Guayama-based group, are convinced that the Salinas landfill project is tied to the construction of a coal- fired power plant in Guayama.

SURCCO heads the opposition to the coal plant, to be built by the US-based AES corporation.

Both groups believe that the landfill and the coal plant need each other. “The coal plant will produce tons of toxic ashes, and AES needs BFI to build that landfill because that’s where the ashes will go”, says SURCCO’s Ismael Muller.

The Puerto Rico government claims that the island’s garbage crisis can only be solved through landfills and incinerators, but Environmental Dialogue advocates other alternatives.

“We’ve always said that recycling is a viable alternative”, says Environmental Dialogue spokesperson Victor Alvarado.

 
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