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TOA BAJA, Puerto Rico – At first glance, it looks like people have abandoned this rural community tucked into Puerto Rico's soft rolling hills: the windows are shut, the doors closed and the gates locked.
But everyone is still here, just sealed inside their homes to shield themselves from the stench, flies and feral dogs of the nearby landfill that has expanded so much it is now just steps away their front doors in Villa Albizu near Puerto Rico's north coast.
"You have no idea what it's like to gulp in that smell 24 hours a day, 365 days a year," said Yahaida Porrata, whose house is roughly 10 steps from the landfill. "You have to shutter the house completely because you can't breathe ... If I had the money, I would have moved a long time ago."
The majority of landfills across Puerto Rico are over capacity and groaning under tons of liquefied garbage seeping into the tropical soil and posing threats to people and the environment, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Nineteen of the island's 29 landfills are violating federal laws, yet they still accept a large portion of the 8,500 tons of garbage that Puerto Ricans generate daily. The EPA has ordered local officials to close 13 of those landfills including the one in front of Porrata's home because of the health risks they pose, but a decade-long economic crisis has prevented that from happening.
Puerto Rico is struggling to restructure a $70 billion public debt load that has forced the government to declare a state of emergency as its revenues dwindle. Officials say they are barely covering the costs of essential services such as education, health and public safety.
Municipalities say they simply don't have the $3 million to nearly $30 million needed to implement the environmental and engineering measures to close a landfill. The government never required municipalities to set aside money for closures, according to the EPA. As a result, landfills keep expanding beyond their capacity as garbage piles up.
"This is a crisis," said Carmen Guerrero, director of the EPA's Caribbean environmental protection division. "This is one of the agency's environmental priorities in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean."
The EPA has the authority to intercede when there's an emergency situation, but it is Puerto Rico's Environmental Quality Board that is supposed to ensure that landfills comply. It is not clear why this hasn't happened. Spokesman Aniel Bigio did not return multiple messages seeking comment.
Only two of the 13 landfills the EPA ordered closed have done so, while two others including the one in Toa Baja, where Villa Albizu is located, opened new areas that meet federal requirements. The EPA filed its most recent order of closure this month, and for the first time it was done unilaterally, meaning there is no room for negotiation with the municipality like in previous cases.
"The conditions are so critical and the threat so great to the population and environment that there was no other choice," Guerrero said.
The order states the landfill in Toa Alta, just south of Toa Baja, must close by year's end, something that residents there are celebrating. There are more than 100 homes and businesses within 400 yards (meters) of the landfill, which was originally built in a sinkhole that forms part of one of the largest and most productive groundwater sources in Puerto Rico. The landfill has since expanded 3 acres (1.2 hectares) outside its boundaries and lacks a system to collect liquefied garbage, control stormwater runoff or monitor the groundwater to ensure it is not contaminating drinking water.
A water treatment plant that lies downstream from the landfill draws some 2 million gallons of water daily from a nearby river. The plant is closed and being renovated so it can draw up to 3 million gallons a day, raising concerns among residents in that area.
"This is the biggest environmental disaster I've ever seen in my life," said Concetta Calise, who lives near the landfill and recently fought off a plague of flies. "I could not even open the door. It was horrible. I've never seen it like that before."
But the mayor of Toa Alta, Clemente Agosto, told The Associated Press that he can't meet the EPA's deadline because the municipality can't afford the estimated $15-$20 million to close the landfill. In addition, he said the municipality doesn't have the money to pay for its garbage to be taken elsewhere if their landfill closes.
"We want to follow the law, but they have to give us time to find the economic means," he said. "You just don't throw a lock on it and that's it."
While he understands people's frustrations, he said the municipality is in such dire financial straits he had to establish a four-day workweek to cut costs.
"We're going to do everything in our power so that no one is affected by garbage collection or by operations at the landfill," he said.
Residents in Toa Alta worry they will soon encounter worse problems than those Porrata faces in Toa Baja.
Porrata has a deep cough she can't shake and her two teenage children have skin ulcers. They visit the doctor at least once a month, and Porrata has to wash dishes before and after using them because of the amount of dust that settles inside her house. Recently, she thought one of her children left powdered chocolate milk inside a cup only to find out it was dust.
She is forced to buy bottled water after the island's water and sewer company warned them the tap water was not safe to drink.
"This has been a living hell," she said. "I never saw this coming."
Danica Coto on Twitter: www.twitter.com/danicacoto