Ponce & San Juan: Injustices brought onto the national spotlight due to a “natural disaster”
John Wesley Crespo
Hurricane Maria devastated many parts of Puerto Rico in 2017, leaving small towns and cities alike crumbling in its path of sheer destruction. Afterwards, many locations were scrambling for basic necessities such as food and water in order to provide the people relief they desperately needed. Prominent locations such as San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, and Ponce, a town that is more inland, will be further analyzed in terms of their demographics and one of the more important environmental problems that is of great concern, that would be wastewater discharges. It is quite important to note the overall environmental issues affecting these two areas in conjunction with the demographic data. Understanding the relevant and provided information will help to understand the context in showing that after Maria made landfall and later left her destruction on San Juan and Puerto Rico, the importance of clean drinking water was a must for everyone. In fact, today there is an ongoing debate on water quality and potable water between that of FEMA and local accounts on the ground, where as you will later see, there appears to be misleading and misrepresented information on this matter entirely.
The following particular data was obtained through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice (EJ) Screen software, a free to use tool for any researcher or for those who simply wish to find out more about a location’s environmental issues and connecting them to its demographics. Notably, this software is able to calculate various environmental indicators and demographic statistics of one’s chosen area/site and therefore break up the data in terms of state, regional and nation-wide percentiles respectively. By inputting the location of both San Juan and Ponce and creating a 3 mile radial buffer around each city on EJSCREEN, as the images above show, we can conclude that these areas continue to experience environmental problems in relation to water, specifically wastewater discharge.
The first factor that will be analyzed is the wastewater discharge indicator (stream proximity and toxic concentration). This metric is modeled by RSEI (Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators) where the EJ Screen software calculates “Toxic Concentrations at stream segments within 500 meters, divided by distance in kilometers (km). [This is] calculated from RSEI modeled toxic concentrations to stream reach segments”. In this 3 mile radial buffer zone, in San Juan and Ponce particularly, the wastewater discharge indicator (toxicity-weighted concentration/m distance) measured in 2019 is 0.86, in the 91th percentile in the state to that of Ponce’s 2.9, 95th percentile. The various data compiled by the EJSCREEN software works in the following way where this indicator is compared to that of the state percentile, what percent of the state United States “population have an equal or lower value; less potential for exposure/ risk/ proximity to certain facilities/indicators”. In detail, when looking at these values for wastewater discharge indicator in that of San Juan and Ponce, only 5-9% of other locations in the state have even greater amounts of this wastewater discharge environmental issue.
In trying to look for more data in regards to how various environmental indicators in San Juan and Ponce compare to the EPA Region and USA as a whole, there was no data that could be analyzed. In analyzing the data table that is shown above, there are a lot of “N/A” in the various environmental and demographic indicators comparing to “%tile” and “Avg” to USA, the same with EPA Region. When navigating to the section “Explore Reports”, there are no graphs shown that would compare environmental indicators and demographics to USA percentile and regional percentile (see figure 4&5). In all truth, I thought I was doing something wrong with the software in not locating the necessary data to the various graphs that go along with the data table that for sure would be available, considering Puerto Rico is part of the United States as a commonwealth. But, as it turns out, there is no data provided. This stark revelation in turn illustrates environmental discrimination overall, where these American citizens are considered second class citizens in not being studied and documented by an United States federal institution, EPA compared to other respective states.
The available demographic data from 2013-2017 measured in Puerto Rico percentage and not nationally according to their respective EJSCREEN ACS Summary Reports in San Juan and Ponce show majority minority cities, comprising of 97% and 99%. In addition to having an overwhelmingly majority minority population of American citizens in Puerto Rico, San Juan and Ponce are also home to a low-income population, with a household income metric of 47% for those making less than $15,000 to that of 35% in Ponce for the amount. In fact, according to the report, San Juan has nearly half of its population over the age of 16 not in the labor force (people who are elderly, retired, etc) at 47%, whereas Ponce has a staggering 62%. What’s even more shocking is that in both San Juan and Ponce, there is still this language divide existing in a commonwealth of the United States, one of the richest and most prosperous nations on earth. According to the same report, the population of San Juan aged 5+ years old’s ability to speak English is at a shocking 91% for “Non-English at Home”, compared that to Ponce’s 92%.
Thusly, this data supports the conclusion that the people in these cities, who are in their right American citizens as any other, are indeed minorities, majority of which are low-income, who are not in the labor force and suffering from a stark disadvantage of not speaking English; even though Puerto Rico is part of the United States as a commonwealth. Based on the limited environmental and demographic data from EJSCREEN, it shows that water treatment in San Juan is better than Ponce, with 0.86, in the 91th percentile in the state to that of Ponce’s 2.9, 95th percentile, where both values are still startling high in their own regards. In addition, the ongoing debate on how truly safe the water is also a concern as FEMA suggests that 95% of Puerto Ricans are receiving potable, clean water but according to local residents and scientists on the island, this account is misleading and misrepresented. In actuality, just two months after Maria hit, residents were noticing discolored and ill-tasting water was flowing from their taps, tests showing bacterial contamination according to Puerto Rico Department of Health from the Environmental Protection Agency. The notion that FEMA says Puerto Rico has potable water at its disposable is far from the truth, where contamination was widespread and according to the data above in terms of water discharges in 2019, water is still a concern in Puerto Rico, namely in San Juan and Puerto Rico seen above.
 “Glossary of EJSCREEN Terms.” EPA. April 5, 2020.
 “How to interpret a standard report in EJSCREEN”. EPA. April 5, 2020. https://www.epa.gov/ejscreen/how-interpret-standard-report-ejscreen
 Panditharatne, Mekela . “FEMA says Puerto Rico has drinkable water. It doesn’t”. The Denver Post, 2017.
citizen, class, energy, corruption, infrastructure, racism