Puerto Rico's southern region fights for cleaner air, water
A resident of Salinas, considered one of the most contaminated towns in Puerto Rico, waits for a meeting with US Environmental Protection Agency officials to start, Wednesday, January 25, 2023 in Salinas, Puerto Rico. Emboldened by the attention that the federal government has now placed in Salinas, communities are demanding a massive clean-up and penalties for those contaminating a region where residents have long complained about health conditions. (AP Photo/Danica Coto).

SALINAS, Puerto Rico (AP) — Shuttered windows are a permanent fixture in Salinas, an industrial town on Puerto Rico’s southeast coast that is considered one of the US territory’s most contaminated regions.

For years, toxic ash and noxious chemicals from coal-fired and thermoelectric power plants have enveloped this community, and residents have complained about health problems ranging from cancer to Alzheimer’s.

Then last year, a bombshell: Officials with the US Environmental Protection Agency traveled to Salinas to announce that the town also has one of the highest concentrations of ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing gas, in a US jurisdiction.

“We’re fighting a lot of battles,” said José Santiago, a 74-year-old retiree.

Emboldened by the attention that the federal government has put on Salinas, Santiago and others are demanding a huge clean-up and penalties for those contaminating the region.

“I will keep fighting until I die,” said Elsa Modesto, a 77-year-old retiree who has not missed a single EPA meeting since last year’s announcement. “I want to know what’s in the environment.”

Puerto Rico ranks 22nd out of 56 US states and territories based on total managed waste released per square mile, at 4.2 million pounds. Six of the top 10 municipalities in that category are in Puerto Rico’s southern region, with Salinas ranked sixth, according to data obtained from the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory.

Salinas also has one of the highest incidence rates of cancer in Puerto Rico, with 140 cases reported in 2019, the newest figures available from the island's Central Registry of Cancer. Salinas has a higher rate than the neighbouring town of Guayama, where cases of cancer and other diseases have increased since the coal-fired power plant began operating there in 2002, said Dr Gerson Jiménez, director of the Menonite Hospital who has testified in public hearings and called for the closure of the plant.

"Medical doctors who work in the southeast area of Puerto Rico have noticed that since the AES Corporation began operating in Guayama, there has been a significant increase in diseases of the respiratory tract, urinary tract, as well as a significant increase in diagnoses of various types of cancer," he testified at one hearing.

The level of contamination has prompted the EPA for the first time to test air and groundwater in Puerto Rico’s southeast region, with Administrator Michael Regan saying that low-income communities and communities of color have suffered unjustly for decades.

Salinas is a town of nearly 26,000 people — of which 28 per cent identify as Black — with a median household income of $18,000 a year. More than half of its population is poor, according to the US Census Bureau.

The town is nestled between the coal-burning power plant, two of the island’s largest thermoelectric plants and other industries, including a company that produces thermoset composites, a material used in major appliances like refrigerators. That company, IDI Caribe Inc, is the facility that releases the most emissions in Salinas, according to the EPA.

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