Growth threatens environment of Caribbean islands

September 30, 1990|By Dallas Morning News

CHRISTIANSTED, VIRGIN ISLAND — CHRISTIANSTED, Virgin Islands -- The license plates and travel brochures describe the U.S. Virgin Islands as "America's Paradise."

But there's sewage in paradise, and too much trash. The lush hillsides are freckled by condos and vacation homes. Reefs are being killed by soil washed into the ocean from development sites. And a molasseslike goo, pumped from a rum distillery into the aqua waters, forms what appears to be a permanent oil slick.

Puerto Rico suffers from a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde personality. It is a tropical playground of palm trees and glistening beaches -- and it is the Caribbean's industrial park. Overpopulation and development are devouring the landscape.

Experts warn that the environmental problems common in the United States are especially threatening to fragile tropical ecosystems and endangered species. Pro-development political leaders vow to protect a species threatened by extreme poverty: the citizens they represent.

"We have a population of 3.3 million on an island of 35 by 100 miles," said Gov. Rafael Hernandez Colon of Puerto Rico. "We need industry to generate jobs and economic prosperity. . . . We must balance the interests of our environment with the interests of industrial development."

Several tropical U.S. territories chafe under federal supervision and seek "environmental autonomy" -- the right to create local environmental laws. Lacking autonomy, the possessions fight for exclusion from federal laws. Failing that, federal mandates are sometimes circumvented or ignored.

For instance:

* Only two of Puerto Rico's 62 landfills comply with Environmental Protection Agency regulations, and the trash keeps piling up. Similarly, the Virgin Islands continues to use landfills that don't comply with rules.

* The Virgin Islands successfully lobbied for a variance from the Clean Water Act that allows a rum industry byproduct, a sticky liquid similar to molasses, to be pumped untreated into the ocean off St. Croix.

* Asserting that Puerto Rico's coasts already are being protected, Governor Hernandez's administration is fighting inclusion in the federal Coastal Barrier Resources System, which can restrict development to protect natural resources.

In Puerto Rico -- by far the most populous of the islands -- government leaders long ago turned to industry to support the commonwealth's growth. The result has been an uneasy mixture of the industrialized world and the Third World -- "colonias" without public water supplies or sewage treatment and pharmaceutical plants that produce wonder drugs.

Solid waste is a problem looming in Puerto Rico's future, as the island generates more than 2 million tons of trash each year for its limited landfill space.

More than 1,400 tons of hazardous waste is shipped to the mainland because not all industries in Puerto Rico can dispose ++ of it. Some states have stopped accepting hazardous waste from Puerto Rico.

The Caribbean islands are struggling with increasing demands that their public water supplies and sewage treatment facilities cannot meet.

The Virgin Islands has battled outbreaks of typhoid in recent years -- a disease typically caused by contamination of water supplies by human waste.

Virgin Islanders rely on rainwater cisterns and desalinization plants for their water supply. Studies indicate widespread cistern contamination. Many are breeding grounds for the bacteria that cause Legionnaires' disease.

EPA officials estimate that 100,000 Puerto Ricans drink unsafe water.

The water supply for Colonia Santi, a community of about 125 sugar cane workers and their families, is about 20 steps from Eugenio Colon Bargos' back door. It is a rusting, turn-of-the-century water tank fed by a nearby well.

Mr. Colon holds a brown envelope containing an EPA notice. It warns that the water system is unsafe, mandates testing and threatens a fine.

His face, creased by years of working in the cane fields, is troubled. But then he shrugs. The water system, he says, belongs to everyone, and people have been drinking the water for years.

Colonia Santi is not unique. Many impoverished communities have no access to public water supplies. Attempts to force improvements through legal action often are thwarted by the ill-defined ownership of the water systems in use.

Many of the unsafe systems were built decades ago with grants from Puerto Rico's government and several federal agencies. Jorge Martinez, an EPA environmental engineer, said he believes the government bears some of the responsibility.

Leonard Reed, an administrator with the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources, said government agencies are "more prone to repeated and continuous violations than most of private industry."

"It may be a matter of attitude," he said. "It may be a matter of dollars."

Both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands operate their sewage treatment facilities under federal court orders.

For 40 percent of Puerto Rico's population, sewage treatment facilities are not available.

And more than half of Puerto Rico's wastewater plants, 52 percent, were deemed "unsatisfactory" by a court monitor in a May report. The percentage of plants deemed satisfactory, 48 percent, was "the highest ever."

One lingering health risk is the former practice of placing sewage lines and water lines in the same trench. If water pressure drops, contaminants can seep into the water supply.

Development also threatens natural habitats and the coral reefs offshore.

"In Puerto Rico, where the level of human development rivals that of such industrialized states as New Jersey, native species are extremely vulnerable, and indeed some have already been lost," warned a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, based in Washington.

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