Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

PUERTO RICO: Environmentalists Say No to Incinerators

Carmelo Ruiz

SAN JUAN, May 18 1999 (IPS) - The warnings of environmentalists of the dangers of trying to solve the country’s garbage disposal problem by incinerators may be falling on deaf ears, but they refuse to give up.

According to estimates from both industry and environmentalists, this Caribbean U.S. territory produces almost 10,000 tons of garbage daily.

But in recent years several landfills have been closed because they do not comply with the United States’ federal government’s new standards for solid waste disposal.

Thirty landfills are currently in operation in the island, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered most of these to be closed during the next decade.

Furthermore, environmentalists claim that the P.R. Solid Waste Authority’s Regional Plan, developed for the purpose of complying with EPA rules, is on the verge of collapse.

They believe that the Regional Plan’s imminent collapse is viewed by incineration advocates as an opportunity to push their agenda.

“The arguments in favour of garbage incineration that we hear nowadays are the same ones we’ve been hearing since 1895, when the first incinerator was built in Germany,” says Juan Rosario, spokesman of Misión Industrial, a local environmental Non- Governmental Organisation (NGO).

According to the Regional Plan, incineration will cost 55 dollars per ton of garbage. But Rosario points out that the Warren County incinerator in the American state of New Jersey is costing 95 dollars per ton.

Incineration proponents in Puerto Rico have claimed that such facilities will abide by environmental standards as strict as those of the Netherlands.

“But the last incinerator in the Netherlands was built in 1995, which burns 2,000 tons of garbage a day, cost 600 million dollars,” says Rosario. “At the same cost per ton, the incinerators recommended in the Puerto Rico Regional Plan will cost 870 million dollars and some that have been proposed to the Puerto Rico Senate would cost up to 1.5 billion dollars.

“Who will pay for this? Obviously, the taxpayers will. They’ll have to pay approximately 160 million dollars more in taxes each year,” he adds.

The Misión Industrial spokesman claims that incineration is an extremely inflexible technology because of its enormous costs.

“All incineration contracts have clauses known as ‘put or pay’, which obligate contracting municipalities to provide a certain quantity of garbage or to pay a penalty,” says Rosario. “This means we’re obligated to create garbage so that the incinerator stays profitable.”

And are incinerators harmless to human health, as some of their proponents have claimed? Not according to professor Carlos Maysonet, who points out that garbage burning creates dioxins and furans.

Both are bioaccumulative and extremely toxic substances that are so dangerous that the EPA has not determined safe levels for them, says Maysonet, who teaches Environmental Management at San Juan’s Metropolitan University.

“The only man-made substance more dangerous than dioxins or furans is plutonium,” says Maysonet.

According to Rosario, 217 dangerous substances had been identified in incinerator ash and smoke emissions by 1990. These include nitrogen oxides and sulphur, (both of which cause acid rain), arsenic, cadmium, mercury, lead, benzofurans and hydrocarbons.

These dangers to human health are so evident that the American state of Rhode Island and the Canadian province of Ontario have both banned incinerators, says Rosario.

Furthermore, Rosario warns that incineration could spell death for the Puerto Rican dairy industry.

“In January of 1998 three incinerators in northern France were closed because they polluted the milk of local dairy farms,” he says. “Two months later, the incinerator in Maubeuge, also in northern France, was found to be emitting dioxins at 1,000 times the legal limit. In both cases the milk had to be decommissioned.”

He also mentioned that milk had to be decommissioned in Rotterdam in 1989 because it was found to be polluted by a nearby incinerator.

“I’d like to ask the Puerto Rico Senate – which will have to approve or disapprove of incineration – and dairy farmers, are we going to play Russian roulette with this country’s dairy industry? Who will want to buy local dairy products in the future?” says Rosario.

He points out that cow’s milk is not the only milk that is in danger. “In 1985 the Swedish government warned mothers who live near incinerators not to breast-feed their children because their breast milk could be polluted with dioxins.”

Maysonet suggests that communities, industry and commerce must join hands in order to jointly design strategies for solid waste management.

Such strategies must include re-using materials, composting and recycling, and will require an effort no less than that involved in the industrialisation of Puerto Rico in the 1950s, he says.

Rosario believes that any sensible solid waste management strategy should contain some principles he considers essential. Among these, that worker-owned community enterprises be formed to deal with waste and that poor communities not be discriminated against in the siting of facilities for non-recoverable waste.

 
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