Puerto Rico’s major water and sewer agency will carry out $1.5 billion in infrastructure improvements under a new settlement with the U.S. Dept. of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The agreement, lodged in U.S. District Court of Puerto Rico on Sept. 15, calls for the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) to carry out a range of wastewater treatment, sludge treatment  and other projects over 35 years.

The U.S. said that it waived civil penalties against the authority because of Puerto Rico’s financial problems.

PRASA Executive President Alberto M. Lázaro Castro said in a statement: "The consent decree recognizes the challenge that PRASA has towards environmental improvement as one of the...largest and complex utilities in the United States."

The authority owns 170 water and wastewater treatment facilities and more than 20,000 miles of water pipelines and sewers and serves an area with a population of more than 3.5 million

Under the settlement, there is no admission of the federal allegations that PRASA violated the Clean Water Act and related permits, the authority said.

John C. Cruden, assistant attorney general in charge of DOJ’s environment and natural resources division, said in a statement, “These upgrades are urgently needed to reduce the public’s exposure to serious health risks posted by untreated sewage.”

The program, spelled out in a lengthy consent decree, includes: $500 million for 100 “prioritization system capital projects” at wastewater treatment plants and the sludge treatment system.

It also includes $138.9 million for 17 other wastewater treatment plant projects to be completed through December 2021; and $79 million for six other sludge treatment systems projects over the December 2017-December 2020 period.
Also part of the plan is $500 million for operation and maintenance work, including sewer cleaning and repairs.

In addition, the program includes $200 million for a spill response and cleanup plan to deal with sanitary sewer and combined sewer overflows and unauthorized pollutant releases from all of PRASA’s facilities, as well as other purposes.

Lázaro Castro noted that with the consent decree, PRASA will continue to plan projects "that provide the most public-health and environmental benefit consistent with PRASA's financial capability, a goal imposed at the beginning of our administration, as established in our strategic plan for PRASA.'

The new settlement updates and expands on similar agreements reached in 2004, 2006 and 2010.

The agreement is subject to approval by the court.

Story updated on 9/17 with statement from PRASA.