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Puerto Rican Climate Activist: Aid Being Unfairly Distributed & Superfund Sites Continue to Overflow

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President Donald Trump said his administration deserves a “10 out of 10” for its response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. But over 1 million people on the island still lack clean drinking water, and residents say they are suffering from eye infections and gastrointestinal diseases as a result of exposure to contaminated water. We speak with Puerto Rican environmental activist Elizabeth Yeampierre, who co-wrote a piece with Naomi Klein headlined “Imagine a Puerto Rico Recovery Designed by Puerto Ricans.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Puerto Rico, where three-and-a-half million residents and half the island’s hospitals still have no electricity from the power grid, more than a month after Hurricane Maria. Over a million people still lack clean drinking water, and residents say they are suffering from eye infections and gastrointestinal diseases as a result of exposure to contaminated water. More than a third of the island’s sewage treatment plants are not functioning, and some 40 percent of residents lack a cellphone signal. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has not yet inspected five out of 18 of Puerto Rico’s toxic waste sites, also known as Superfund sites. The official death toll now stands at 49, with health experts saying the real number is likely to rise.

AMY GOODMAN: On Monday, FEMA announced more than $500 million in aid to the island, including $285 million to help restore electricity and water services. The Senate also tentatively approved a $36.5 billion hurricane relief package that includes aid for Puerto Rico. A final vote is expected later today before the measure heads to President Trump. But first, Republican Senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Mike Lee of Utah are demanding that Puerto Rico be made permanently exempt from the Jones Act, a 1920 law that has complicated efforts to send supplies to the hurricane-ravaged island. All of this comes as President Trump said on Thursday his administration deserves a “10 out of 10” for its response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think we’ve done a really great job, and we’ve had tremendous cooperation from the governor. And we are getting there. And people are really seeing the effort that’s been put into Puerto Rico. It’s been a very, very difficult situation for many people. I will say that. … It hit right through the middle of the island, right through the middle of Puerto Rico. There’s never been anything like that. I give ourselves a 10.

AMY GOODMAN: Puerto Rico is saddled with a $74 billion debt and now faces an estimated $95 billion in storm-related damage. Many are now questioning what the recovery effort will look like. Who will benefit? Who will be left out?

In a new piece for The Intercept, Puerto Rican activist Elizabeth Yeampierre and Naomi Klein write, “Imagine a Puerto Rico Recovery Designed by Puerto Ricans.” They write, “[T]he fact that the House-approved relief package contains $5 billion in loans for the island, rather than grants, is a special kind of cruelty. Because on an island already suffering under an un-payable $74 billion debt (and another $49 billion in unfunded pension obligations), Puerto Ricans understand all too well that debt is not relief. On the contrary, it is a potent tool of perpetual impoverishment and control from which relief is urgently needed.” The authors also look at how communities in Puerto Rico are now working together to achieve a more just recovery.

For more, we go to Elizabeth Yeampierre. She’s joining us from Berkeley, California, executive director of UPROSE and co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Elizabeth. First describe what’s happening on the ground in Puerto Rico, what you are most struck by and what needs to happen.

ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: Well, thank you for having me on the show and for keeping a spotlight on the island.

We’re in touch with activists on the island on a regular basis, people from Organización Boricuá, a number of organizations that are really part of the front-line leadership working on climate justice issues. The first thing you hear about is that there’s tons of food and water that they don’t have access to, that they can’t make it through the island because there’s no gasoline, that there’s also a state of militarization in Puerto Rico, that there are police officers coming in from almost every state in the country, and the military, and that people feel like they’re being shut down, that they can’t move around.

People on the island are also working really closely together, cooking together, sharing resources, cleaning up, doing the work that’s necessary so that they can get—they can get their lives back. But it feels like a police state. And artists are also working. Folks that are involved—were involved in food justice issues are also working hard to try to clean up some of the areas so that they can start growing things again. There’s an enormous amount that folks on the ground are doing, and it’s actually just a model of resistance and resilience from the people on the island.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Elizabeth, I wanted to ask you—in terms of the hindrance to the recovery efforts, we’ve raised here on the show numerous times the situation with the Jones Act, that creates enormous restrictions in terms of how supplies come into the island, how any kind of imports come into the island. But there’s been quite a bit of a fightback from the AFL-CIO, which actually issued a statement several days ago, and I just want to read to you that statement from the AFL-CIO. They say, “Since the Jones Act ensures that our labor laws protect maritime employees, repealing the Act would pave the way for foreign companies to replace domestic crews with lower paid workers lacking basic labor protections.” And they go on to say that “foreign-flag ships often do not enforce safety standards, minimum social standards or trade union rights, [and they] fail to pay crews, and avoid compliance with environmental standards.” They go on to say, “The Jones Act has in no way impeded Puerto Rico’s recovery.” And they say that the biggest problem has actually been a lack of truck drivers and getting supplies from the ports to the island, not necessarily shipments coming in. I’m wondering your response to these statements by the AFL-CIO?

ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: Sure. And, you know, sadly, that really—that really sort of illustrates some of the conflicts that we have as part of the climate justice movement and labor. And they’re sad conflicts, because we support workers’ rights and their environmental rights, their wages. All of that is really important to us. But the truth is that the Jones Act not only is delaying support for Puerto Rico, but it’s also been responsible for the high cost of living because of the exorbitant costs of shipping goods to Puerto Rico. The truth is that in other nations and in other places, communities get resources from a lot of different nations and that those things get worked out.

Just this past week, we worked really hard to get Greenpeace to provide their ship so that we could put all of the materials that people on the island had asked us for and transport those things on the vessel to Puerto Rico. But the ship that is owned by Greenpeace is an international vessel. And we did research that showed that not only would they—the Jones Act prevents us from actually putting those goods on the ship, but that they can’t actually deliver those goods to Puerto Rico. So it feels as if the United States is saying, “We can’t help you. We won’t help you. And we’re not going to let anyone else help you.”

With labor, I am just really stunned that the families and the people who work for the unions are the same people that are going to be impacted by climate change, and that they really are only thinking about their economic interests and not thinking about a future that’s already here. We had the same problem with the AFL-CIO when we organized for the People’s Climate March, and they didn’t want us to say, “Keep it in the ground.” And we were talking about literally a just transition, moving away from an extractive economy to one that’s regenerative and providing jobs, and this is happening all over the world. So it’s sort of a dated way of thinking about economic development. And it’s also really something that makes you feel insensitive about the needs of unions, because we want to be able to be aligned with them, we care about their rights, and we care about their future, and we care about unions, but it’s hard to do when they don’t care about the survival of our community, when the needs of the shipping industry are more important than the lives of the people in Puerto Rico.

AMY GOODMAN: Elizabeth Yeampierre, can you—you’re a longtime environmentalist, as co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance. Can you talk about the connections between climate change and Hurricane Maria? I mean, that’s what happened in Puerto Rico. Interestingly, you’re in San Francisco right now, and just north of you, of course, you’ve got this urban conflagration that has consumed parts of Napa. Santa Rosa is a wasteland in many parts. Can you talk about this issue of climate change and what isn’t being talked about even in the media that’s covering the climate catastrophes, not mentioning that word, “global warming”?

ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: Yeah, it’s amazing, Amy. You know, I’m Puerto Rican. I run an organization that was founded by Puerto Ricans 50 years ago. And I’m a climate justice activist. And it feels like my worlds have collided. You know, the situation in Puerto Rico—Puerto Rico is a model of extraction. For generations, the United States has basically extracted our land, our labor. And Puerto Rico has now become sort of the poster child for climate injustice. And I refer to the—55,000 people have already left Puerto Rico in 33 days. And I think of them as climate refugees. Hurricane Maria came on the heels of Irma, on the heels of Harvey in Houston. We’re right here in the Bay, where there are all these wildfires. And I’m actually here in a meeting with It Takes Roots, which is made up of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, the Climate Justice Alliance, the Indigenous Environmental Network, Right to the City—all of us really grappling on how do you build just transitions in communities that are faced with a crisis that’s already here.

So, Puerto Rico is really a front line. And because its unique relationship with the United States, it makes it particularly vulnerable, because other places—you know, if we’re talking about Houston and exposure to toxics and toxicants, that was something that we saw coming years ago. You mentioned that I’ve been doing this for a while, and it’s true. I was the chair of the U.S. EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. And many years ago, I was talking about: What do we do about industrial waterfront communities in the event of an extreme weather event? Is the EPA ready to address that issue? If we have an extreme weather event, Superfunds then basically overflow. Chemical exposure will cause disease for generations. What are we doing about that? And at the time—and it was under the Obama administration—the NEJAC didn’t want to address climate change. They just wanted to talk about environmental justice in the traditional sense. And then New York City was hit by Sandy, and we were allowed to create a working group to address that. So, we were able to do a study, that kind of sat there, and with recommendations from people from industrial waterfront communities, and the study just sat there collecting dust. And then Harvey happened. And Houston then becomes the exact thing that we were predicting.

And then, here in Puerto Rico, we’ve got 23 Superfunds, 23 Superfunds that have now flooded and affected everything, so that even as people make their way through their communities to try to clean up, they’re being exposed to any number of chemicals. There is no—no one is looking at the EJ executive order that really sort of says, you know, you’ve got to have an interagency approach to addressing these issues. What’s the quality of the area? What’s the quality of the water? What is the quality of the soil? Are people protected? Are they wearing protective gear? What’s the exposure, again, to toxics and toxicants? So, all of that is happening in Puerto Rico, in a tiny island that was just literally like just slaughtered by this hurricane. So, we knew that this was coming. Of course, we’re not—we were never prepared for it. But Puerto Rico really is that—sadly, that poster child of climate change. And so, folks can deny that it’s here, but, honestly, you know, our scientists—you know, our scientists are telling us—99 percent of the scientists are telling us that it’s global warming.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Elizabeth—

ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: So now—yeah?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask you, if we could switch gears a little bit, about the response of both the federal government and the Puerto Rico government itself to the—subsequent to the disaster. We have the news now that the Senate is getting ready to move forward a bill which is $36 billion for all three—for Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico—and, of course, this issue of the loans to Puerto Rico, instead of actual grants, and that FEMA is releasing $500 million immediately. But, of course, FEMA is doing that because the PROMESA board, installed by Congress, sent a letter to the president and to congressional leaders just about 10 days ago saying the government of Puerto Rico will be completely out of money by the end of this month, by October 30th. There is no money left to be able to do any kind of work.

So, one, the nature of the federal response, but also the nature of the response by the local Puerto Rican government itself, the governor, Ricardo Rosselló, which hasn’t gotten a whole lot of attention? But the governor initially hired a company, a completely unknown company, to restore electricity in Puerto Rico, a company by the name of Whitefish LLC out of Montana, that it turns out only had two employees and virtually no track record, and yet was being hired to bring back all the electricity to Puerto Rico. The only interesting thing about Whitefish is that it’s a small town in Montana of 3,000 people, where the only—the most prominent resident of Whitefish, Montana, is Ryan Zinke, the secretary the interior. So I’m wondering your response to how the government of Puerto Rico is handling the aftermath, and also the federal government?

ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: Well, Juan, both are—both are concerning. The federal government is concerning because the commitment to Puerto Rico is so small. And the president has actually said that all of his support is behind Texas, but, basically, Puerto Rico is going to have to save itself. So, that’s concerning.

The governor of Puerto Rico—as you know, PROMESA really devastated Puerto Rico. And now we’re really concerned about what Naomi calls “disaster capitalism.” The truth is that we’re hearing that there are conversations being had with the governor of Puerto Rico and with private investors to privatize entire communities in Puerto Rico, like Arecibo. That’s why we’re so concerned about the fact that there are—that 55,000 people have left. We’re afraid that the same thing is going to happen to Puerto Rico as happened in New Orleans, where people never came back and their communities were gentrified. And in Puerto Rico, we’re concerned that entire towns and communities will be privatized.

We’ve also been watching with interest his reaction to what the president is saying is a great recovery. And so we’ve been wondering: Is his reaction one that has to do with the fact that he’s afraid to upset this president and not get any relief at all, or does he really believe this? It is a—we’re actually—we’re demanding transparency. We want to find out who these relationships are with. We want to find out where the relief is happening, for example. Which are the communities that have been prioritized for relief? Where is the money being invested? Is that going to communities where there are U.S.-owned properties, or is that going to communities that have been most impacted? Because, as you know, even before the storm, a lot of the resources went into recreational developments and hotels and properties owned by the United States. So those are questions that we have. We are concerned about what the recovery is going to look like. And Puerto Rico can’t have a recovery that takes it back to where it was, or leaves it in a place that makes it completely—that makes Puerto Ricans completely dependent on the United States, which is why we’ve been talking about a just recovery. All of the efforts that we’ve been hearing about are very conventional. And this is a very—climate change is a very unconventional situation.

So, we have no trust in this governor. And we have less trust in this president to solve the problem that Puerto Rico has, that really was created through—not just through the storm, but from generations of extraction. And so, this situation that Puerto Rico is in is one that could have been predicted, because PROMESA left Puerto Rico devastated, and the hurricane has basically knocked it—knocked it to its knees.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, some people have speculated, Elizabeth Yeampierre, that maybe President Trump isn’t as concerned about Puerto Rico because they don’t vote for president. You don’t get to vote for president on the island. What about the fact that so many people are now moving to the mainland? I mean, they are American citizens. How does it work? Can they vote then?

ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: Well, I think that if Puerto Ricans move to the states, that they may be able to vote once they establish residency here in the United States. I don’t know if the reason that the president doesn’t care about Puerto Rico is because they can’t vote for president. That’s possible. I think that the reason is deeper than that. I think that there is a disregard for the lives of people of color, that there’s a disregard for, you know, folks who come from the Global South. And so, Puerto Rico is more seen as an economic opportunity for private interests in the United States, and the people are just sort of the backdrop to that interest. So I think that citizenship is important. And folks having the right to vote, clearly, that’s important. But I think it’s more complicated than that.

AMY GOODMAN: Right. I mean, if so many Puerto Ricans move to Florida, I mean, could it flip Florida and make it Democratic? Just a question.

ELIZABETH YEAMPIERRE: Well, you know, I heard that the reason that Florida voted for Obama during that election was that there were so many Puerto Ricans in Central Florida, that they actually had or played a role in tipping the vote. I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what we’ve heard.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Elizabeth Yeampierre, we want to thank you for being with us, executive director of UPROSE, co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance. We will link to your piece that you just wrote with Naomi Klein for The Intercept. That piece is called “Imagine a Puerto Rico Recovery Designed by Puerto Ricans.”

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, what happened in Niger? And what is U.S. Africa policy? Stay with us.

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