SALINAS, Puerto Rico ( Associated Press) – Boarded up windows are a fixture in Salinas, an industrial city on Puerto Rico’s southeast coast that is considered one of the most polluted in the United States.
For years, toxic ash and harmful chemicals from coal and thermal power plants have plagued the community, and residents have complained of health problems ranging from cancer to Alzheimer’s.
Then, last year, a bombshell: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials reported from Salinas that the city also has the highest concentration of ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing gas, in a U.S. jurisdiction.
“We are in many conflicts,” said Jose Santiago, a 74-year-old retiree.
Encouraged by the attention the federal government has brought to Salinas, Santiago and others are calling for a major cleanup and sanctions for those polluting the area.
“Until the day I die, I’ll keep fighting,” said Elsa Modesto, a 77-year-old retiree who hasn’t missed a single EPA meeting since last year’s announcement. “I want to know what’s in the environment.”
At 4.2 million pounds, Puerto Rico ranks 22nd out of 56 US states and territories based on total managed waste released per square mile. According to the EPA, six of the top 10 municipalities in that category are in Puerto Rico’s southern region, with Salinas tied for sixth.
Salinas also has one of the highest cancer incidence rates on the island, with 140 cases reported in 2019, according to the most recent official statistics. Dr. Gerson Jimenez, director of the Mennonite hospital, pleaded that Salinas has higher rates than the neighboring city of Guayama, where cases of cancer and other diseases have risen since the coal-fired Corporation AES power plant began operations in 2002. went. plant shutdown.
Contamination levels have led the EPA to analyze the air and groundwater in Puerto Rico’s southeastern region for the first time. The agency’s head, Michael Regan, has said that low-income communities and communities of color have suffered unfairly for decades.
Salinas is a city of approximately 26,000 residents, 28% of whom identify as African-American; According to census data, more than half of its population is poor.
The town is located between a coal-fired power plant, the island’s two largest thermoelectric plants, and other factories, including a factory producing thermosetting compounds, a material used in household appliances. That company, IDI Caribe Inc., is the largest-emitting facility in Salinas, according to the EPA.
In general, styrene and ethylene oxide, a cancer-causing gas, are the two main chemicals released into the air and water in Salinas, officials say. Salinas and Guayama also have sulfur dioxide levels that exceed the new standards.
In addition, a study published by the Chemist College of Puerto Rico in late 2021 found the presence of carbon-associated heavy metals in Salinas’ drinking water. The quantity detected did not exceed the regulatory limit.