SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Norma Quiñones spent four years without running water after Hurricane Maria destroyed the well that she and dozens of neighbors depend on in their community deep in the mountains of western Puerto Rico.
Last Christmas, crews installed a new well, but the water is not treated, so Quiñones is forced to drive 45 minutes into town to buy nearly 100 bottles of water every week for her family.
“It’s been years of suffering,” she said.
A school nurse, the mother of two hopes their situation and others like it across the U.S. territory will change with the official visit this week of Michael Regan, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
He is expected to tour several poor communities on the island as part of a U.S. initiative dubbed “Journey to Justice” to learn how pollution has affected them.
“It’s really important for me that we’re on the ground and we’re seeing these injustices up close,” Regan told The Associated Press in an interview Monday. “These are the same communities that are on the front line, facing the impact of climate change.”
Regan’s first stop will be Tuesday at the Cano Martín Peña, considered one of Puerto Rico’s most polluted waterways. It is part of the San Juan Bay Estuary and is home to more than 25,000 people descended from impoverished migrants who arrived in the mid-1900s from the island’s rural areas.
Community leader Lucy Cruz told AP that while federal and local officials have made funds available to clean the waterway and reduce flooding, problems include the lack of a sewage system.
“This would not only be a change for the Cano Martín Peña community, but for all of Puerto Rico,” she said.
On Wednesday, Regan is expected to visit at least two community drinking water systems in the northern city of Caguas and talk with residents about the challenges they face.
He also is scheduled to stop at a facility in southern Puerto Rico that burns coal to produce energy and has long been the source of complaints and health concerns for those living nearby.
“I’m headed to Puerto Rico not only to spotlight these injustices, but to listen and learn from the community so we can develop solutions together,” he said.
The visit comes as Puerto Rico is slated to receive $78 million in EPA funds for water infrastructure projects. The local government will decide how the funds will be allocated, although Regan already has sent a letter that outlines the criteria for those resources and the agency’s expectations.
He also noted that much of the funding is available as grants or forgivable loans.
“This means that communities that have never had a seat at the table can be eligible for those resources,” he said, adding that Puerto Rico has long suffered from air and water pollution. “For far too long, too many communities have gone neglected and that must stop now.”
Quiñones, who lives more than two hours from the capital of San Juan, had hoped that Regan would stop by her community. Undeterred, she said she wrote him a letter detailing the woes of the damaged well.
“Water is the most essential thing in life after air,” she said.