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The cleanup and decontamination efforts in Vieques, following the Navy’s exit, could be drastically limited by the cuts President Trump has proposed for the EPA. (Archive)

US President Donald Trump’s proposal to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget by 31% could have “detrimental” effects on Puerto Rico’s environment.

Carl Soderberg, former EPA director in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, explained that if these cutbacks were implemented, the first effect would be a significant reduction in the human resources available to carry out oversight and management duties in environmental programs.

He anticipated, for example, that the EPA’s operations in the Virgin Islands and in the island-municipality of Vieques could be drastically limited—which in the case of Vieques includes overseeing the cleanup of areas contaminated by the US Navy.

Likewise, the oversight programs—including those that provide air and water monitoring—could end up eliminated. These initiatives include the one carried out by the Environmental Quality Board (JCA, by its Spanish acronym), which monitors the beach water quality.

“This is consistent with what President Trump said in his campaign he would do with the EPA. These cuts have disastrous effects on the environment. We have to see how the issue develops. There are many Republicans in Congress who believe in environmental protection and who hail from states that would be very affected by this,” Soderberg said.

More specifically, Trump’s proposal consists in eliminating $2 billion from the EPA’s budget. The changes could cause the layoff of 3,000 agency employees, including scientists, technicians, and experts on various environmental issues.

So far, the cutbacks are planned mainly for the initiatives that combat climate change, specifically those addressing carbon dioxide emissions. Nevertheless, other environmental oversight, monitoring, and recovery programs—such as the Brownfields program, which seeks to clean contaminated areas—would be affected.

“The funds that will apparently be cut are those for oversight and monitoring. There are JCA programs that depend on these federal funds, which are processed through the EPA. The beach water monitoring program is one of them,” explained former JCA Vice President Ramón Cruz.

Press reports from the United States have also singled out the Energy Star program, which promotes the use of low energy consumption technology, as another initiative targeted by Trump’s budgetary cutbacks.

Pedro Saadé, lawyer and expert on environmental issues, also stated that some of the funds in Trump’s list provide resources for water and wastewater management. At a local level, these funds go towards improvements to the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority’s facilities and the community water distribution systems.

He reiterated that all of this is compounded by the austerity policies drafted by the local Government. A reduction in resources at the federal level and another at the local level could mean a significant reduction in vigilance and, therefore, in the compliance with environmental laws and regulations. “This comes at a time when the local Government and the (Oversight) Board want to increase infrastructure development. It is less oversight with a greater potential for the development of projects that could harm the environment. The communities must be twice as alert,” Saadé said.

“The main thing for me is the inspections. In Puerto Rico there are barely any resources to carry out proper inspections. If the cuts happen, there will scarcely be any personnel left to inspect landfills, factory emissions, or agricultural waste, for example. All of that piles up and reduces environmental quality as a whole,” Cruz noted.

Trump’s changes have been submitted for the next federal budget, which begins on October 1 and will depend on any amendments made by the United States Congress.


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