Using GIS to Monitor the Impact of Illegal Dumping on Water Resources in Puerto Rico

February 4, 2020 | Blog

Edwin Vázquez-Asencio, MBA, Sustainable Materials Management Specialist, RCAP Solutions

Illegal dumping sites riddle the island of Puerto Rico. Many sites where people have illegally disposed of, or “dumped,” waste remain unidentified because of their remote nature. Often, these sites are adjacent to water sources and can negatively impact the environment and water quality.

In order to tackle a problem as vast as the illegal dumping in the community of Barrio Capitanejo in Juana Díaz, Puerto Rico, it requires boots on the ground; but also, in some cases, a bird’s eye view. One of RCAP’s goals is to use technology to increase awareness of this issue at both the local community and government level, in order to inspire them to take responsibility and advance solutions to this rampant problem.

Even when neighbors and municipal officials know about the areas affected by illegal dumping behavior, they often see only a part of the problem—those things that are tangible. Potential impacts on the water table and underground water reservoirs are not visually evident at illegal dumping sites, so they are often forgotten or overlooked. If hazardous materials are abandoned for a long period of time, vegetation traps them, soil covers them, or equipment operators can unintentionally bury them in ditches during cleanup efforts. These hidden pieces of trash often have a lasting impact. 

Lack of awareness of how illegal dumping affects the environment and water sources is one issue, but another is how to prioritize community cleanups when resources are very limited. What scientific method should be used to determine which areas should be a priority for the county if they can only conduct one or two cleanups? Other common considerations are vectors for disease prevention, and the potential impact on ground and surface water sources, which should be one of the most important issues to consider. But this problem is hard to perceive if it is out of sight.

RCAP Solutions (the Northeastern RCAP) evaluates illegal dumping sites using multiple tools to assess the problem and provide valuable information to the municipality, the Department of Natural Resources, and most importantly, the communities directly involved in the situation.  Geographic Information System mapping (GIS) is one of the key tools used by RCAP to establish priorities, provide facts about the affected area, and illustrate possible sources of contamination and potential correlations between illegal dumping and water quality.

In working with communities with a low level of environmental impact awareness and municipalities with economic restraints, RCAP Solutions has learned to present facts and evidence that concentrate on the impact of illegal dumping on public health. GIS has been an important and valuable tool to do this.

Throughout our pilot project in Capitanejo, RCAP Solutions identified five illegal dumping sites; some started growing a long time ago, others were recently created. The municipality—in Puerto Rico, a municipality can consist of multiple communities— in their efforts to address this situation, validated the identified places as being regular illegal dumping sites and performed cleanups without the participation of the communities. Their limited resources for outreach activities and education are important factors in this problem. Thanks to our work in the creation of an interactive map available to educate the communities, we provided the opportunity to share this tool with anyone with access to a phone or tablet, which is quite an improvement in the availability of tangible data.  It is a way to see what is not immediately evident with the naked eye to help us understand how illegal dumping behavior affects public health. Even when it seems far from someone’s home it could be near their drinking water source. RCAP identified three wells from the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA), which is the water system that serves Capitanejo, which are nearby and could potentially be negatively impacted by these same illegal dumping sites. 

Justina Alvarado, the Manzanilla Community Board President commented, “Now we can better show the children of our community why illegal dumping is wrong and demonstrate to everyone the evidence that it can come back to haunt us.”

The problem of illegal dumping is widespread and cannot be tackled all at once, especially with budgetary constraints. With this GIS data tool, municipalities and local officers from the Natural and Environmental Resources Department can prioritize the clean-up of illegal dumping sites based on their potential impact on local public health and the environment.