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Puerto Rico struggles with massive environmental crisis

CAGUAS, Puerto Rico — Raw sewage is pouring into the rivers and reservoirs of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. People without running water bathe and wash their clothes in contaminated streams, and some islanders have been drinking water from condemned wells.

Nearly a month after the hurricane made landfall, Puerto Rico is just beginning to come to grips with a massive environmental emergency that has no clear end in sight.

‘‘I think this will be the most challenging environmental response after a hurricane that our country has ever seen,’’ said Judith Enck, who served as administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency region that includes Puerto Rico under President Barack Obama.


With hundreds of thousands of people still without running water, and 20 of the island’s 51 sewage treatment plants out of service, there are growing concerns about contamination and disease.

‘‘People in the US can’t comprehend the scale and scope of what’s needed,’’ said Drew Koslow, an ecologist with the nonprofit Ridge to Reefs who recently spent a week in Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico has a long history of industrial pollution, and environmental problems have worsened due to neglect during a decade-long economic crisis. A dozen overpacked landfills remain open despite EPA orders to close them because local governments say they don’t have the money.

Twelve days after Maria made landfall, less than 20 percent of the island’s power grid was back online. Officials say running water has been restored to 72 percent of the island’s people. The water authority says it’s safe to drink, though the health department still recommends boiling or disinfecting it.