SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Under two settlements with the Department of Justice and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), three Puerto Rico government agencies have agreed to upgrade portions of storm water systems they own within the Municipality of San Juan.
These upgrades, which will be performed by the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, the Department of Transportation and Public Works from Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority, are aimed at eliminating or minimizing future discharges of sewage and other pollutants into water bodies in and around San Juan, including the Condado Lagoon, the Martin Peña Channel and the Atlantic Ocean.
The EPA estimates that over six million gallons of untreated sewage is being discharged into waterways in and around San Juan every day which amounts to more than 2.2 billion gallons discharged annually.
“These structural and operational improvements to the storm water infrastructure are critical and desperately needed for the public health and well-being of San Juan’s residents,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “This agreement will improve storm water collection systems that will reduce contamination from sewage that is presently escaping into water bodies around the city each day.”
“For far too long, harmful discharges of sewage and other contaminants have polluted water bodies in communities in Puerto Rico,” said Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck of the EPA. “These legal agreements will drive water quality improvements and protect the health of the people of Puerto Rico.”
The Puerto Rico agencies will invest an estimated $77 million in infrastructure upgrades and other actions over the life of the two legal agreements. The settlements are related to an agreement with the Municipality of San Juan that was announced on October 26, 2015, in which San Juan agreed to take actions to upgrade its separate storm sewer system.
Storm water runoff in San Juan is collected through municipal separate storm sewer systems and is discharged into local waterways. When rain falls on roofs, streets and parking lots, the water cannot soak into the ground and carries trash, bacteria, heavy metals and other pollutants into streams, threatening public health. In addition, property and infrastructure can be damaged by storm water runoff due to erosion. Additionally, sanitary sewer lines or industrial discharges can also be illegally connected to the storm sewer, leading to untreated sewage or other pollutants reaching water bodies.
Between 2005 and 2013, the EPA documented that the Puerto Rico agencies were discharging untreated sewage and other pollutants from their storm sewer systems into water bodies, in violation of the Clean Water Act. The waters receiving the untreated sewage include those that are classified for activities where people may come into contact with the water, such as fishing, boating, swimming, wading and/or other recreational and commercial activities.
Untreated sewage can carry bacteria, viruses and other harmful pollutants that can cause a number of illnesses. Direct and indirect human exposure to or contact with untreated sewage and contaminated waters discharged on a daily basis presents an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and welfare.
The EPA waived the collection of any monetary civil penalties due to financial challenges currently facing the Puerto Rico government; however, the agreements will include financial penalties if the agencies fail to complete the work and meet the deadlines.
The EPA also alleged that the Puerto Rico Department of Transportation and Public Works and the Puerto Rico Highway and Transportation Authority was discharging storm water containing untreated sewage through the storm water systems they own and operate to provide drainage for their roads and highways. Flow from these systems is conveyed to the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources’ pump stations.
The settlement, lodged on Wednesday in the US District Court for the District of Puerto Rico, is subject to a 30-day public comment period and approval by the federal court.