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U.S. EPA Administrator Whitman Addresses Major Issues During Visit Announces New Projects, Discusses Vieques Cleanup


December 19, 2002
Copyright © 2002 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

During a recent three-day visit to Puerto Rico, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Christie Whitman addressed a host of major environmental issues currently facing the island.

Whitman said that as a former governor of a relatively small but heavily populated state (New Jersey), she can identify with Puerto Rico's challenges.

"Because it is geographically small, like New Jersey, Puerto Rico has some intense problems," Whitman told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. She said the purpose of her visit was to reaffirm the EPA's commitment to working with Puerto Rico's government agencies, communities, and businesses to attain a healthier environment.

One of the biggest concerns that arose during Whitman's visit was the little progress the island has made in recycling. Whereas New Jersey increased the percentage of the trash it recycles to 50% under Whitman's tenure as governor, in Puerto Rico the figure is still at a paltry 5%.

"The lack of recycling here is a big issue," Whitman said. "People have got to get engaged." She underscored the fact the island doesn't have the landmass to sustain the mounting pressures on landfill space.

Whitman indicated it is largely a matter of getting an efficient, user-friendly collection system in place so people become accustomed to recycling. "Once people get used to it, they hate not to do it," she said.

Will supervise cleanup of Vieques

The EPA administrator also discussed her agency's role in supervising the cleanup efforts that are expected to take place on Vieques once the U.S. Navy ceases training in the island municipality.

"We do have a responsibility and a role there which we fully intend to play," Whitman said. "We will make sure--it's our responsibility to make sure--the sites at Vieques are cleaned up and made safe for the people who live there."

Whitman anticipated the Vieques cleanup effort will be a priority for the agency. She pointed to other former military bases around the U.S. where the EPA has worked with the Defense Department on cleanup efforts. "I believe they're going to be very good partners in this," she said.

In essence, the Defense Department will pay for the cleanup, while the EPA will be in charge of overseeing what is expected to be a costly process.

"Our object isn't to bankrupt the military, nor is it to leave the environment bankrupt," Whitman said.

Various water initiatives

Water quality issues throughout the U.S. also remain at the top of the agency's agenda. The events of 9/11 added another layer of concern, given the possibility of terrorist attacks on the nation's water supply.

Whitman, who has been given primary responsibility for new initiatives to ensure the safety of the water supply, said the agency has dedicated $400 million to the effort. "The good news is the water companies do a lot of testing already and are pretty good at picking things up," Whitman said.

She said the EPA is working with Sandia Laboratories, the Centers for Disease Control and law enforcement agencies on related antibioterrorism measures.

With regard to the island's water filtration plants, Whitman announced a $10.7 million infrastructure grant for the Sergio Cuevas plant in Trujillo Alto. The plant is the main source of water for metropolitan San Juan, serving a population of 1.5 million.

"With this money, the facility can be upgraded and the best equipment can be added, ensuring the water residents are receiving in their homes is clean and healthy," Whitman said upon making the announcement.

Accompanied by Resident Commissioner Anibal Acevedo Vila, the EPA administrator also visited the Martin Peña Canal, which is to be the site of an ambitious, long-term dredging project. Whitman announced the EPA will provide $5 million for the planning stages of the project, which is one of the principal components of the San Juan estuary program.

Whitman also spoke about a $21 million EPA watershed program that's being implemented nationwide. She said the new initiative has a strong educational component, in order to make citizens aware that what they do affects the water supply on which their lives depend. Both Whitman and Carl Axel Soderberg, director of the local EPA district office, indicated Puerto Rico hasn't yet submitted a proposal to participate in the program.

Brownfields cleanup and redevelopment

Another major area of activity for the agency is the Brownfields program, dedicated to supporting the cleanup and redevelopment of hazardous waste and petroleum-contaminated properties throughout the nation.

"At $200 million, our fiscal year 2003 budget request more than doubles the funds allocated to the program," said Whitman. Agency officials said they would like to see more activity on the Brownfields front in Puerto Rico.

"People are fighting for Brownfields in the States, but many people here don't yet understand the purpose of the program," Soderberg said.

Thanks to new features on the agency's website (, visitors can enter their zip codes and find out which properties in their area are under the EPA's jurisdiction because of the presence of contaminants or hazardous waste.

Promotes sun protection, energy-saving devices

With Gov. Sila Calderon, Whitman visited a public school in Hato Rey to announce the launch of the local Sunwise program, a partnership with the Puerto Rico Department of Education that's aimed at teaching children and their caretakers the importance of protecting themselves from excessive exposure to the sun's damaging ultraviolet rays.

Whitman said the agency is also concerned about tackling other environmental issues affecting the island's schoolchildren, such as indoor pollution, school bus emissions, and lead poisoning through clay containers.

Whitman also met with San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini to sign an agreement whereby the capital city's government has committed to purchasing EPA-certified Energy Star equipment for municipal government offices.

The Energy Star label is carried by equipment that uses 50% to 85% less electricity than standard models. "Energy Star electronic products, such as computers and television sets, can significantly reduce operating costs," Whitman said.

Outreach to businesses

Whitman and EPA Region 2 Director Jane Kenny also took the opportunity to tout the participation of a growing number of local manufacturing operations and other businesses in the agency's Performance Track partnerships.

"These are companies that agree to go above and beyond what the regulations require," Whitman said. "In exchange, we're able to reduce the frequency of inspections." Kenny said that so far, some 30 facilities in Puerto Rico are involved in the program.

Advocate of 'smart growth'

"It's absolutely possible–and necessary--that we have both a thriving economy and a healthy environment," Whitman said. "In fact, you can't have one without the other; you can't find an economy that thrives if the environment is degraded."

Recognizing the tension that has historically existed between economic development and environmental protection, Whitman said she's committed to advancing what are called "smart growth" economic development strategies, including the promotion of urban redevelopment.

Tight budget

Whitman acknowledged her agency is under intense budgetary pressures because of the recent creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. "We are in the process of reorganizing and doing a better job of leveraging the dollars we have," she said.

The EPA administrator said she expects her fiscal year 2003 budget, which has yet to be approved, to remain relatively steady at around $7.7 billion.

Despite the budgetary pressures, she said the agency will maintain its commitment to its core programs.

Whitman added the agency's enforcement mission continues to be paramount. She noted 2001 was the EPA's biggest year ever in terms of fines, restitution agreements, and other major enforcement actions.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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