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Puerto Rico reefs victims of 'death act'
A 20-year extension to comply with the U.S. Clean Water Act, granted last week to a Puerto Rico wastewater treatment plant, is a "death act" for the area's fragile coral reefs, conservationists say.
The extension, made by the Environmental Protection Agency, gives the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewage Authority's Aguadilla treatment plant a 20-year waiver for the discharge of primary treated sewage into coastal waters.
Five other applications for waivers are pending in Puerto Rico and approval is expected.
Primary treatment uses a physical process to separate solid materials from sewage. Advanced primary treatment enhances this process.
According to the EPA, primary or advanced primary treatment can provide the required level of environmental protection, but secondary treatment, which uses bacteria and aceration to further break down the sewage, significantly reduces pollutants entering the ocean.
"We are proposing to allow the waiver from secondary treatment only because we are convinced that the current level of treatment at the plant is protecting the environment and public health," said EPA regional administrator Jeanne Fox.
While the EPA says the action is intended to "strengthen and maintain the protection of water quality in Puerto Rican waters," conservation groups question the logic in the agency's action.
"Something smells about this agreement," said Mary Ann Lucking, project coordinator for CORALations, a Caribbean-based marine conservation organization. "Dilution is the concept behind these treatment plants. The idea is that the primary sewage (mostly human waste) will mix with the ocean water without causing any harm."
When waivers were first offered to Puerto Rico back in the 1970s, they recognized small treatment plants that did not harm the environment, Lucking said. That condition has changed, she said.
"The Puerto Rican government discharges 200 million gallons of heavily chlorinated discharge into coastal waters each day, " Lucking said.
Many of the plants are expanding their current operations, she said.
"There are cost-effective, zero-discharge technologies that could be put in place," Lucking said. "The EPA apparently brings a greater priority to hooking more people up to the exiting plants than improving the plants."
Most of the discharge is occurring in shallow tropical waters where the plumes are not properly diluted by ocean currents, she explained.
"Coral reefs evolved to live in clear, clean nutrient-free waters of the tropics," said Lucking. "When we introduce nutrients to coral reefs it causes floating algae to bloom green, turbid, cloudy water that blocks sunlight from the coral reefs."
Lucking warned that the impact of the pollution may reach far beyond Puerto Rico. "When we stress corals, they are more prone to disease," she said. "That disease may be transferred (to other coral reefs) through ocean currents."
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