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Beyond debt default and Zika, Puerto Rico struggles as trash piles up

As Puerto Rico’s government grapples with an economic crisis, a Zika outbreak, and widespread landfill closures, another disaster is brewing -- trash on the island. Whenever it rains, several feet of black, contaminated water and trash flood the homes of people living near the Martín Peña Channel. NewsHour’s Ivette Feliciano reports.

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  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Romana Castro sleeps with her two children on donated mattresses in this small bunk bed. She lost most of her furniture and belongings last month, when several feet of raw sewage and trash flooded her cement block home in Puerto Rico's capital, San Juan.

  • ROMANA CASTRO:

    I was asleep, and I heard water running, and I said, 'What is that?' And when I get up and check, I see that water is pouring in. Water was coming in from the toilet. Lots and lots of black water. I didn't have time to bring anything inside or get anything out of the way.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    The problem of contaminated water and trash literally flowing into homes in her neighborhood is decades-old and getting worse. Castro is one of 27,000 people who live in a ring of impoverished communities along the Caño de Martín Peña, or the Martín Peña Channel.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    A heavily polluted waterway connecting San Juan Bay and a series of lagoons.

  • MARIA VICTORIA CASTRO:

    The water was pouring in from the shower and the toilet. And it wasn't clear water. It was completely dirty, really awful. Completely black. This time it was worse than ever. People have been comparing this last flood to hurricane Hugo. That's what it felt like.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    The water is so polluted, because the area has never had adequate sewer systems dating back 80 years ago, when housing for industrial workers was built here. More than 3,000 homes and buildings still discharge raw sewage directly into the Martín Peña Channel. Just as damaging, people inside and outside the communities use the channel as a garbage dump.

  • LUCY CRUZ RIVERA:

    We've had to intervene and step in when they arrive. They bring trash and tires in the middle of the night. And at 2am, who will be here to fight with them and tell them to stop?

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    The channel was once 400 feet wide and 10 feet deep, popular for swimming and fishing. Today, the waterway, clogged with garbage and sewage, has shrunk to 30 feet wide and three feet deep, and almost no one goes in it. It is a magnet for mosquitoes, potentially carrying the Zika virus, at a time when 925 people on the island are confirmed to have been infected with Zika. Doctor Hector Villanueva is medical director at Health Pro-Med, a clinic that offers low cost, and in many cases free, services to residents along the channel.

  • HECTOR VILLANUEVA:

    When the trash is present it usually attracts insects, rats, and all kinds of vectors and animals that may transmit diseases.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    A 2014 study by Mount Sinai Medical School in New York found people who live around the channel have higher levels of gastrointestinal disease than the overall rate in Puerto Rico. And University of Puerto Rico researchers found that children there are more likely to develop bronchial asthma and skin conditions. Castro is concerned about the health of her two children and the third on the way. She's six months pregnant.

  • ROMANA CASTRO:

    I'm especially worried because I'm pregnant, and Zika right now is a big threat in this country. So I'm really worried, because I see more mosquitoes than ever before.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Pregnant woman are especially at risk, as Zika can cause Microcephaly, a birth defect that causes babies to have abnormally small heads and brains. Just yesterday the territory announced its first Zika-related microcephaly case among the 128 pregnant women diagnosed with virus. Doctor Villanueva tells his patients to do what they can to avoid mosquito bites.

  • HECTOR VILLANUEVA:

    "The problem is that the community's very poor. So the recommendations are not really affordable to them. Some of them cannot buy the insect repellant. It's also recommended that they should use screens and they should take advantage of the air condition[er]. But those things are not affordable to our community. So we have to deal with their reality."

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Last month, his clinic received a 250-thousand-dollar grant from federal department of health and human services and the centers for disease control and prevention…For a Zika-awareness campaign. Clinic board member Carmen Velez Vega is a professor at the University of Puerto Rico School of Public Health and says part of the problem is that the amount of trash here undermines their efforts.

  • CARMEN VELEZ VEGA:

    The garbage truck, doesn't come here as often as it comes to other communities. There are places here where the truck will come once and sometimes even twice a day. But that's not what's going to happen here. There are parts of this community that probably won't see a truck in more than a week. And sometimes maybe more. There is a difference in terms of the attention that communities like these get.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    The clinic tests patients for Zika if they exhibit symptoms like a rash or red eyes. So far, it has documented only one case of the virus. But just steps away from the clinic, we met Carmen Hernandez, who says she contracted Zika after having sex with her husband because she didn't not know the virus can be spread through intercourse.

    A proposed restoration project would dredge the Martín Peña Channel, build a sewage system, and relocate families during the cleanup. The Puerto Rican government has already spent $120 million addressing the faulty sewage system in some areas and preparing for the dredging.

    Lyvia Rodriguez heads "enlace," an organization created by Puerto Rico's government to implement the project in partnership with the environmental protection agency and the army corps of engineers.

  • LYVIA RODRIGUEZ:

    Every time there is a flood like the one we had two weeks ago, the government has to spend millions of dollars dealing with the crisis and the emergency when we should be spending those same dollars in dealing with the issue. However we do know that Puerto Rico cannot afford by itself to deal with the Caño de Martín Peña restoration.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    The estimated cost of the restoration project is $600 million. About half still needs to be secured. Congress has promised a quarter of the funds for the EPA and Army Corps of engineers to assist the cleanup. The Puerto Rican government and its agencies are supposed to provide a third of the funds, but the debt crisis has put that money in jeopardy. Rodriguez says that's why plans to build a sewage system along the channel have been delayed.

  • LYVIA RODRIGUEZ:

    We have had one project for example, which is the relocation of a potable water lane that has been in the bidding process for over a year because they do not have cash flow to be able to construct it. So those are the kinds of issues that the community has been facing currently because of the fiscal crisis.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    The Martín Peña Channel is a symptom of much larger trash trouble on the island.

  • PUERTO RICO GOVERNOR ALEJANDRO GARCIA PADILLA:

    EPA has been telling Puerto Rico for many years that we are getting to the end of the road.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Puerto Rico Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla says the island is doing what it can to reduce waste. During the past 30 years, the Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the closure of more than 50 landfills across the island for leakage issues contaminating groundwater and not being up to environmental standards.

  • PUERTO RICO GOVERNOR ALEJANDRO GARCIA PADILLA:

    It hasn't been a problem yet to pick up trash from the houses. What is a real problem, and will be if we do not attempt to try to tackle now, is what they do with the trash.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Of 29 landfills left, the EPA has ordered eight more to close during the next five years. To reduce landfill waste, Garcia Padilla recently issued an executive order outlawing plastic bags, and says he's working to expand recycling. The island recycles less than 15 percent of its garbage, compared to 35 percent on the mainland. The landfill closures make garbage disposal even more challenging for residents along the Martín Peña Channel.

  • LYVIA RODRIGUEZ:

    Basically, because people have less opportunities of where to take their garbage to, or they want to avoid the fees to dispose of properly of the garbage in ways, they look for places where you can use illegal dump sites and dispose of this garbage.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    While the government works to boost recycling rates across the island, people living here have launched a community recycling program to do their part on the ground.

  • CARMEN FEBRES ALMESTICA:

    "The EPA told us this is the law, so if it is the law, we'll make it happen."

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Next month they hope to sign an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps to design the cleanup program. Obviously the trash situation has been an issue in this community for decades. The economic crisis and Zika.

  • HECTOR VILLANUEVA:

    All these three elements obviously doesn't help us. Because Zika is bad in any moment, but right now with all those external factors affecting the quality of life for population, it has a greater impact.

  • ROMANA CASTRO:

    Until the channel cleanup begins, Romana Castro lives in fear of the next storm, and the filthy flood it could bring.

  • ROMANA CASTRO:

    Material things can always be bought again, but my child's life? That's completely different. Or they could get sick, all of that contaminated water could make them sick. It really worries me.

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