Corporations Are Poisoning People in Puerto Rico With Coal Ash

Community organizers in Guayama, Puerto Rico, are agitating for the closure of a coal plant operated by the Virginia-based multinational corporation AES, citing research showing that local rates of cancer and asthma have increased substantially since the plant opened in 2002.

Now the fight has spread to the mainland United States: in early May, media reported that AES coal ash is now being shipped to a landfill in Osceola County, Florida. Even as AES continues to plague communities in Puerto Rico, it is now threatening to spread its poison to this Florida county with a large Puerto Rican community.

I first learned of the crisis of the cenizas, or ashes, in January, when I traveled to Puerto Rico with the Queer Trans Solidarity and Service Brigade, a group of U.S.-based activists on a mission to learn more about the political and day-to-day struggles in the archipelago and organize in solidarity with our comrades based in Puerto Rico. We went to Guayama, in the southeast of the main island, for a town forum organized by Comunidad Guayamesa Unidos por tu Salud on the community-wide health effects of the coal ash generated by the AES power plant in the town. Some of us from the U.S. had seen cable news air footage after Hurricane Maria of black sludge, rainwater mixed with thick coal ash from the plant, pouring from drainage pipes into the sea in the nearby town of Peñuelas, but we didn’t yet know the full extent of the coal ash catastrophe.

An Uncontained Mountain of Coal Ash

At the town forum, Luis Bonilla, an environmental researcher from the University of Puerto Rico, cited two separate studies that show the clear negative effects on the health of the residents of Guayama since AES, a Virginia-based multinational corporation, opened the coal plant in 2002. The city has seen notable increases in rates of cancer, asthma, and other diseases that can be linked to the effects of burning coal and the resultant ash filling the air and contaminating the groundwater.

These findings are worrisomely similar to the effects of the Guayama coal ash that was for a time exported to the Dominican Republic for disposal, where it also severely poisoned communities there. Gerson Jiménez, medical director at a local hospital who has practiced in Guayama since 1979, shared that in the years since the plant opened, he saw incidences of diseases linked to coal ash skyrocket as he’d never before seen in his many decades of practice in the area. Community organizers pleaded for people within and outside of Guayama to speak out and demand that the government force AES to stop its harm and make amends. The researchers and organizers concluded their forum with a final, urgent recommendation: to close the AES plant immediately.

Christy Morales and Aldwin Colón, two of the event’s organizers, live in the Miramar neighborhood of Guayama, about a mile away from the plant. Raising their two children there and seeing the effects on their health motivated them to join the efforts against AES. Colón was also diagnosed with kidney cancer in his mid-30s — a diagnosis that he thinks might not have happened if the coal plant had not moved to town — with his doctors telling him they were used to seeing the disease in people in their 60s and 70s. Colón and Morales were angry, and they channeled their anger and pain into their activism, getting people to pay attention to what was happening and take action to stop it.

The organizers offered to take us to see the plant up close. We followed as they expertly navigated their car down the neglected public road just outside the coal plant’s fence. Now we could see the mountains of coal ash towering stories high in the middle of the plant, shockingly uncontained. Each gust of wind blew a cloud of ash westward toward the road where we stood and past us into the residential neighborhoods of Guayama. Soon our eyes were watering, noses and sinuses reacting to the ash-filled air, an especially disturbing sensation given what we’d just learned about how this ash had been poisoning the people here for the past 17 years.

As Hurricane Maria approached in 2017, AES was supposed to cover up the ash with tarps to try to contain it. This strategy was flimsy at best: imagine how little plastic tarps can actually do to contain 120-foot mountains of ash during a Category 5 hurricane. But AES didn’t even use tarps. Maria struck with the mounds uncovered, further polluting the air and the waters around Guayama and sending ash from the dumps in Peñuelas pouring out of drainage pipes into the Caribbean Sea.

The Toxic Coal Ash Heads to Florida

Organizers in Osceola County, Florida, are now also organizing against AES, working to halt shipments of the plant’s coal ash from Puerto Rico to a local landfill. The approval of the plan to ship the coal ash to Florida was tacked onto an Osceola County Commissioners’ meeting as a last-minute addendum item, making it impossible for residents to register their objections before the deal was finalized. Fred Hawkins, commissioner of the district where the J.E.D. landfill is located, has financial and donor connections to Waste Connections, the owners of the landfill.

Community members in Osceola County are now organizing to halt the shipments of coal ash; nearly 44,000 tons have already arrived in Osceola with another 200,000 planned before the end of 2019. After the public outcry, the county government sent a letter to Waste Connections asking them to stop shipments immediately. The company responded that it would continue accepting the AES coal ash until October 1, 2019, ending three months earlier than originally planned — but ultimately bringing the same amount of toxic waste into the area.

In both Guayama and Osceola County, a fair amount of the organizing around the coal ash issue is happening via Facebook. A group created for the community response in Osceola County includes information about the companies involved; news of the most recent developments; information on how to obtain signs, buttons and stickers; and encouragement to attend county commission meetings, protests and marches against the coal ash.

Some comments posted to the Osceloa County group’s page complain that “they” or “you,” meaning Puerto Ricans, should “clean up your own garbage” from the coal power consumed on the archipelago, with arguments that Florida shouldn’t be taking in “foreign” waste. Others repeatedly respond that AES is a U.S. company; that Puerto Rico is not currently a foreign nation; that the people of Puerto Rico have been protesting the coal plant for years and demanding renewable, clean energy sources; and that AES and other fossil-fuel profiteers spend massive amounts of money ensuring that their business continues unchecked.

These tensions between local residents are striking, though unfortunately not completely surprising, given the shifting demographics in central Florida. The Latinx population in Florida is rapidly growing. Puerto Ricans make up a large percentage of that Latinx population, especially after Hurricane Maria, when more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans moved to Florida after their homes, livelihoods and communities were destroyed by the storm.

When I first saw the Osceola news in the Guayama Facebook group, I commented about how many Puerto Ricans live in the area, including members of my own family. One poster responded that “this environmentally criminal corporation seems to have something personal against Puerto Ricans.”

The connection isn’t lost on others. One Puerto Rican now living in Osceola called the development a “double whammy.” And in a Sierra Club statement, organizer Adriana Gonzales says, “The people of Puerto Rico didn’t fight for years to get this toxic pollution removed from our communities just so AES could turn around and force their poison on Puerto Ricans in Florida. Now AES wants to dump their pollution in the very place that people fled to for safety.”

We Need Renewable Energy to End This Mess

No community that learns about the toxicity of coal ash wants it anywhere nearby. Promises about safe containment and disposal are broken again and again. And ash aside, there are, of course, the terrible, climate-changing effects of the greenhouse gases generated by burning coal. Given all of this, coal and other fossil fuels are simply not viable options for powering any place, especially not a place like Puerto Rico, where the fuels and the waste produced by burning them need to be shipped both in and out, yielding electricity prices nearly twice the U.S. average.

The answer, in Puerto Rico and everywhere, is renewable energy. Community-owned-and-operated solar power made a tremendous difference in post-Maria Puerto Rico, with the potential for building microgrids to provide sustainable power that doesn’t depend on a fragile, centralized system. But this opportunity for far more affordable and environmentally friendly energy is being targeted by government policies, including a proposed tax to penalize those who disconnect from the centralized grid and rely on their own solar power instead. These policies are influenced by corporate lobbyists invested in everyone believing that Puerto Rico has no choice but to rely on imported, expensive, toxic and environment-destroying fossil fuels like coal.

Things are starting to shift, but not nearly quickly enough. In 2017, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed a law banning the dumping of coal ash in Puerto Rican landfills, but making exceptions for supposedly safe construction materials made from the ash. This May, after previous failed lawsuits challenging the practice, the Puerto Rican Senate endorsed an amendment to the law to disallow those uses of coal ash as well. Earlier this year Rosselló signed another law to require that Puerto Rico be powered solely by renewable energy by 2050, with coal power eliminated by 2028.

Nine years might seem like a short amount of time to AES and others profiting from their coal plant, but nine more years is an intolerably long time for the residents of Guayama who are being sickened by breathing and drinking the ash. And the 31 years until the promised full conversion to renewable energy is far too long for a people who suffered so greatly when their centralized, fossil-fuel-based power grid was decimated by Hurricane Maria, leaving only the few solar-powered locations across the archipelago as beacons of light and life-saving electricity.

The AES Puerto Rico plant must be forced to stop burning coal now. AES must be forced to dispose of the toxic coal ash in the most responsible, least harmful ways available, at its own expense. The centralized Puerto Rican power grid must shift toward renewable energy immediately. But perhaps most importantly, the citizens of Puerto Rico should be assisted, not impeded, in developing their own solar microgrids and other locally controlled sources of renewable electricity that can endure in the face of hurricanes like Maria, which we know will come again.