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Environment & Science

‘Decarbonize, decentralize, democratize’: Environmental attorney, advocate Ruth Santiago speaks at Lehigh

Ruth Santiago
Molly Bilinski
Ruth Santiago, a 1980 graduate of Lehigh University, lectured Tuesday night as the university's Earth Month speaker.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — There are lessons to be learned from Puerto Rico’s electrical grid failures as climate change worsens, Ruth Santiago argued Tuesday night.

  • Ruth Santiago, a Bethlehem native who now works as an environmental attorney in Puerto Rico, spoke Tuesday night at Lehigh University
  • Puerto Rico's electrical grid has failed due to extreme weather events
  • Equitable solutions include using FEMA funding for distributed renewable energy

“I think that we're seeing utility companies are largely failing to mitigate or adapt to the climate crisis that we're experiencing with these more intense and extreme weather events,” Santiago said. “ … in spite of lofty renewable energy goals and zero emission targets, government agencies that are in the grips of utility capture frequently failed to follow through on the energy transformation agenda.”
“ … Puerto Rico is the poster case for energy injustice.”

"Puerto Rico is the poster case for energy injustice."
Ruth Santiago, Lehigh University's Earth Month speaker

Santiago was Lehigh University’s Earth Month speaker, lecturing for more than an hour in the Sinclair Auditorium to an audience of dozens of students and community members.

A 1980 graduate of the university with a double major in economics and Spanish literature, Santiago grew up in Southside Bethlehem. In the decades since earning her law degree from Columbia University, she’s fought against environmental injustice in Puerto Rico, her work garnering her a spot on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

“It's Earth Week, of course, and that is the time of the year when we're supposed to learn about environmental problems that the planet is facing,” said Breena Holland, an associate professor of political science and the university’s environmental initiative. “Ruth Santiago is one of these attorneys who has dedicated her life to protecting the planet and to protecting the humans among us who are most burdened by and vulnerable to the ongoing activities that exploit the planet's resources and life support systems.”

‘Without power for almost a year’

More than half a decade ago, Puerto Rico was struck by a devastating hurricane.

“Hurricane Maria destroyed and damaged hundreds of thousands of homes, tore up roads, bridges and other infrastructure, and downed 80% of Puerto Rico's centralized grid, resulting in a complete power outage that extended for nearly nearly a year in some communities,” Santiago said. “Many people spent at least a few months, but there were actually communities in Puerto Rico that were without power for almost a year.”

Most recently, in September, Hurricane Fiona slammed into the territory’s southwest region as a Category 1 storm. Weeks after, more than 270,000 people out of 1.47 million were without power and more than 100,000 residents out of 1.2 million without water service, according to an Associated Press report.

The solution to these widespread outages, Santiago argued, is to use FEMA money earmarked to repair the existing grid and instead transform the system more equitably, “to provide life-saving distributed renewable energy, primarily rooftop solar and battery energy storage systems to enable universal access to resilient power to Puerto Rico's residents, businesses and institutions.”

Equity is a big concern, with poverty rates on the archipelago close to 44%, she said. Many residents who can afford rooftop solar are already doing so, leaving those without the means in the dark.

“Let's not just decarbonize, let's decentralize, democratize the colonized, break the dependence with fossil fuel imports to Puerto Rico and elsewhere,” Santiago said.

‘It's got to be interdisciplinary’

Maggie McLaughlin, a junior at Lehigh studying environmental science and psychology, said Santiago’s lecture was informative.

“I kind of wished that there were more people here that I didn't know, from different majors, so that they could hear how relevant it is to all majors,” McLaughlin said. “Especially like a lot of engineers could come and learn about how they can change it and change the system, and even business people, and poli-sci.

“So I think that was kind of like what I was thinking about during the entire time, because like, it's so relevant.”

Emily Schmidt, a junior studying mechanical engineering and environmental policy, echoed McLaughlin, saying that multifaceted solutions are needed.

“It's got to be interdisciplinary,” Schmidt said. “Any kind of solution can't just be one group of environmental lawyers taking care of it, or just like people trying to do things in their sector, like a lot of people are talking together about it.”

She’s also frustrated with reactionary officials.

“I'm just getting so fed up with this obsession that the government and corporations have with short-term fixes, and citing that it's cheaper, and getting it'll get quick results,” Schmidt said. “But then it's, it's the quick results versus the frequency of problems coming up again, and again, and the intensifying of problems.”

‘A unique opportunity’

The Lehigh Valley is an example of how many Puerto Rico residents have left the archipelago to find work, Santiago said.

An estimated 64,000 people of Puerto Rican heritage live in the Valley, according to previous reports from the university.

“Some areas within Puerto Rico, like Salinas, for example, where I'm based, has even higher unemployment and poverty rates,” she said. “And so that, of course, has led to a median household income in Puerto Rico that is about a third of what the median household income is in the states.

“And yet, in contrast, we pay the second or sometimes even the first highest electric rates of any U.S. jurisdiction,” she said.

Instead of rebuilding the grid only to have it fail again as storms worsen, Santiago argued there’s an opportunity to put Puerto Rico at the forefront of sustainable electricity.

“The Biden-Harris administration has a unique opportunity to make good on his commitment to tackle the climate crisis and center environmental justice by showcasing Puerto Rico as an example of what disaster recovery funds can do to transform the electric system,” she said. "Using FEMA funds to rebuild the Puerto Rico grid as it was would be a terrible waste of taxpayer money.”

Santiago said her work as a lawyer can help bring about positive change, and struggle is a part of that.

“My theory of change is that community organization, mobilization, vigilance and a struggle is what makes the change,” Santiago said. “I think lawyers are facilitators of those processes. I think we help to access information, and that we help to open up spaces and participate in certain forums and maybe use those legal tools and others to enable community work.”