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San Juan, Puerto Rico Agrees to Make Investments in Clean Water

Oct 26, 2015

 

Contact: John Martin, (212) 637-3662, [email protected]

(New York, N.Y. – October 26, 2015) Under a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Municipality of San Juan has agreed to make substantial upgrades to its storm sewer systems throughout the city. The upgrades and related cleaning activities are aimed at eliminating or minimizing daily discharges of large volumes of untreated sewage from the Municipality’s storm sewers, and minimizing discharges of other pollutants into nearby water bodies, including the San Juan Bay Estuary, the Atlantic Ocean and the Martin Peña Canal. The estimated cost of the upgrades and actions over the life of the agreement is $180 million.

“The residents of San Juan deserve a better storm sewer system, one that does not expose them to the serious health risks posed by untreated sewage,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The requirements of this settlement are good for the environment and necessary for the long-term health and safety of local waterways and communities.”

“Billions of gallons of raw sewage are released into waters in and around San Juan every year, threatening public health and the environment,” said Regional Administrator Judith A. Enck for the EPA.  “This legally binding agreement will ensure that this sad legacy of sewage pollution is finally addressed.”

Storm water runoff in urban areas is collected through separate storm sewer systems and is discharged into local waterways. When rain falls on roofs, streets and parking lots, the water cannot soak into the ground and carries trash, bacteria, heavy metals and other pollutants into streams, threatening public health. In addition, property and infrastructure can be damaged by storm water runoff due to erosion.  The primary method to control these storm water discharges is through the use of effective practices to protect water quality under a storm water permit issued under the Clean Water Act. Storm water permits do not authorize the discharge of untreated sewage.

In addition to documenting daily discharges of untreated sewage, the EPA documented that the Municipality of San Juan failed to implement its own storm water management plan, including failing to establish storm sewer maps to facilitate the detection of illegal discharges, failing to implement a program to detect illegal discharges, and failing to provide routine cleaning and maintenance to its system.  Between 2008 and 2013, the EPA documented that pollutants, including millions of gallons of untreated sewage, were being discharged every day from the Municipality of San Juan’s system.  In addition to collecting rain from streets, the EPA determined that San Juan’s storm sewer system has been collecting sewage from homes through pipes that have been improperly connected to the storm sewers. The EPA also determined that infiltration from cracked sanitary systems and direct connections of sanitary sewers to storm sewers have resulted in additional contributions of untreated sewage to the storm sewer systems.

The waters receiving the untreated sewage include those that are classified for activities where the human body may come into direct and indirect contact with the water, such as fishing, boating, swimming, wading and/or other recreational and commercial activities. Untreated sewage can carry bacteria, viruses and other harmful pollutants that can cause a number of illnesses. Direct and indirect human exposure to or contact with untreated sewage and contaminated waters discharged on a daily basis presents an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health and welfare.

Under this legal agreement, the Municipality of San Juan will come into compliance with its storm water permit, develop and implement a storm water management program to prevent pollutants from entering into and being discharged from its storm sewer systems and develop and implement a plan to identify and address issues within its systems, including eliminating illegal discharges. Illicit connections and discharges in some priority areas of San Juan must be eliminated within 10 years and in other areas within 14 years. Within eight years, the Municipality of San Juan must also submit a schedule for the completion of an investigation of and a design plan for eliminating all illegal connections and discharges to its municipal separate storm sewer systems in the remainder of the city of San Juan. San Juan must also implement the plan and complete construction within an EPA-approved schedule.

Additional requirements under the agreement include:

  • Asset management program: The Municipality of San Juan will develop an asset management program, including protocols and operating procedures for inspection, cleaning and repair of sewer infrastructure; consistently clean the sewer system; and submit a routine cleaning schedule and checklist to the EPA for review.

  • Planning: San Juan will develop and implement a spill prevention control and countermeasures plan, as well as a spill control plan. The Municipality will also submit a vacuum truck sludge disposal plan, and submit standard operating procedures for pump stations.

  • Water quality monitoring and outfall inventory program: The municipality will sample and monitor water quality, maintain an electronic record of information on system outfalls and complete an inventory of all of its outfalls in the city of San Juan within three years.

  • Warning signs: The Municipality of San Juan will inform the public through warning signs posted at discharge points and through a public education program on the dangers of being exposed to these discharges.

  • Urgent action registry: The Municipality of San Juan will maintain an Urgent Action Registry that will track all complaints by government agencies and individuals of illegal discharges into San Juan's storm sewer systems. San Juan will address these complaints within one to three years from the date a complaint is made. This is an innovative tool to address the multiple traditionally unaddressed complaints to bring relief to affected residents.

The Municipality of San Juan will consider Green Infrastructure projects to comply with obligations under the agreement. Green infrastructure is an environmentally sustainable technique to manage storm water that uses vegetation, soils, and natural processes to manage water and create healthier, more resilient urban environments.

Discharges of untreated sewage from San Juan’s storm sewers disproportionately affect disadvantaged communities in the municipality, leading to the prevalence of gastrointestinal symptoms in areas such as the neighborhoods adjacent to the Martín Peña Canal. By requiring the municipality to prevent exposure to untreated sewage, the EPA is advancing environmental justice in the community through the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race or income, in the environmental decision-making process.

The settlement was lodged today in the U.S. District Court of Puerto Rico. It is subject to a 30-day public comment period and approval by the federal court. The settlement will be available for viewing at www.justice.gov/enrd/Consent_Decrees.html

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