Puerto Rico Faces Serious Garbage Problem After Hurricane Maria

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Long before Hurricane Maria devastated the island, Puerto Rico has been facing an environmental landfill crisis.

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Most of Puerto Rico's 29 landfills were already over capacity before the Category 5 hurricane hit the island in September but now with added piles of branches, moldy furniture, rotten food from loss of electricity, and overall debris from the powerful storm it has sped up how fast these landfills will be filled.

According to NPR, in Toja Baja, just outside Puerto Rico’s capital, a former soccer field is now being used as a dumping site for a three-story-high mountain of waste.

Puerto Rico's Solid Waste Authority estimates that the powerful hurricane created 6.2 million cubic yards of waste and debris. That's enough trash to fill about 43 football stadiums with piles of waste eights stories high, according to a measure used by FEMA.

Antonio Rios, head of Puerto Rico’s Solid Waste Authority, estimates that at current recycling rates, all of the island's landfills will be full in 20 to 25 years.

The soccer field turned dumping site is supervised by 25-year-old Lionel Ruiz. Last month, he says, it accepted 36,000 tons of waste — that's 70 percent more than the month before the hurricane.

Another issue Puerto Rico is facing is the cost of closing a landfill, which is approximately $200,000 per acre, according to Rios. Puerto Rico is currently bankrupt, struggling with more than $120 billion in debt and pension obligations, so it is uncertain how long these landfills will take to close which can affect the surrounding environment.

The overflowing rotting garbage is upsetting people down the hill in the neighborhood of Candelaria.  One resident, 83-year-old Angelo Fernandez said, "Every time they leave it open, the smell is awful."

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He says people living in Candelaria suffer from asthma and other breathing problems because of the landfill. They cough a lot.