Even before Hurricane Maria struck the island nearly six months ago, the majority of Puerto Rico’s residents lived with water that violated health standards set by the US law. Since the storm, residents say the situation has only gotten worse. Among the sources of potential water contamination are mountains of coal ash generated by a coal-fired power plant owned by a private company called AES. For years, residents have demanded the company stop dumping toxic coal ash into their community, saying the waste is poisonous to their health and the environment. We speak with Mekela Panditharatne, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council who just returned from the island and wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post headlined “FEMA says most of Puerto Rico has potable water. That can’t be true.”
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring in another part of the country — Puerto Rico — right now to talk about what’s happening there, where residents have been organizing against coal ash disposal. Even before Hurricane Maria struck the island six monthS ago, the majority of Puerto Rican residents were living with water that violated health standards set by US law. And since Hurricane Maria, residents say, the situation has only gotten worse. Among the sources of potential water contamination are mountains of coal ash generated by a coal-fired power plant owned by a private company called AES. For years, residents have been demanding the company stop dumping toxic coal ash into their community, saying the waste is poisonous to their health and the environment.
For more, we’re also joined in Washington, DC, by Mekela Panditharatne, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, who just got back from Puerto Rico, her recent piece in The New York Times headlined “Puerto Rico Needs More Than Bandages,” also wrote The Washington Post op-ed “FEMA says most of Puerto Rico has potable water. That can’t be true.”
Mekela, welcome to Democracy Now! How does this story about coal ash, before and after the hurricane, fit into this national story?
MEKELA PANDITHARATNE: Well, for example, the southern coastal town of Guayama is home to a five-story-high pile of coal ash that was produced by this energy company AES. Now, AES has been producing coal ash, and that has been deposited in landfills scattered across Puerto Rico, including in a community called Peñuelas, which has been really a locus in these environmental justice fights.
Coal ash does pose significant human health risks, in part because it produces what’s known as fugitive dust. That’s when parts of the coal ash stack will blow away during a windy day and contaminate the surrounding environment. When coal ash gets wet, it can also seep into the soil and into the groundwater and potentially cause drinking water contamination.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, how did the storm affect the coal ash contamination? The plant is still running?
MEKELA PANDITHARATNE: The plant is still running. And residents of Guayama have expressed concern that after the hurricane there may be contaminants leaching into the soil and into the groundwater in that area.
AMY GOODMAN: And how is the government responding now? I mean, you have so many crises in Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico home to 23 Superfund sites, including the island of Vieques, which the US Navy bombed with — bombed and napalmed for so many years.
MEKELA PANDITHARATNE: Well, what we’re seeing in Puerto Rico at the moment is really the culmination of a long-standing drinking water crisis that has in part been contributed to by these coal ash sites and by these plentiful Superfund sites. Even before Maria, Puerto Ricans had the worst drinking water quality of any state or territory in the nation: 99.5 percent of Puerto Ricans were served by drinking water in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Around 70 percent of Puerto Ricans were served by water sources that violated health base standards, so that had unlawfully high levels of contaminants or weren’t being treated in accordance with federal standards. Those contaminants included coliform bacteria and disinfection byproducts, but also the kind of volatile organic compounds that you would expect to see from leaching from these kind of Superfund sites and coal ash deposits.
AMY GOODMAN: As you mentioned, in Puerto Rico’s southern town of Peñuelas, residents have been fighting for years to stop this private company, Applied Energy Systems, or AES, from dumping the coal ash in a landfill next to their community. Last year, before the hurricane struck, Democracy Now!’s Laura Gottesdiener and Juan Carlos Dávila spoke to one of the community leaders about the organizing efforts to stop the toxic dumping.
YANINA MORENO: [translated] My name is Yanina Moreno. I am one of the spokespeople from the camp against the ashes in Peñuelas. When the trucks drive by, they are speeding from the time they leave the camp in Guayama. And the police create a line of police cars, a whole perimeter to protect the street. In order to deposit the ashes, they have to mobilize a whole operation, a whole mobilization of police, because, otherwise, they would not be able to enter. Without the police, the trucks would never be able to enter Peñuelas.
AMY GOODMAN: Mekela, what are people demanding now in Puerto Rico, as we wrap up?
MEKELA PANDITHARATNE: Well, the hurricane has really made a bad water situation and a bad contamination situation even worse. The local government has said the majority of its water infrastructure was damaged by the hurricane. And as we’ve heard, residents are concerned about coal ash contamination leaching into the groundwater. So, what we’d really want to see is significant investment into drinking water infrastructure and also into securing these coal ash contamination sites and preventing further leaching of these contaminants into people’s water sources.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Ben Eaton, in Montgomery, Alabama, what are the people of Uniontown now finally demanding?
BEN EATON: We are demanding the — we are demanding the landfill to put in more and better preventions of this coal ash being dumped on us, better protection to keep it from leaking or seeping into our waterway or into the soil to kill off all the crops in that area. We are just constantly fighting, from one thing to the next. Our last attempt was in order to have any kind of justice, just to have someone in the office to actually protect the people, and not for a personal issue. And that’s why I have decided to run for county commissioner in District 5 in Uniontown. And in this district, guess who’s in it. The landfill. So, this is one of the ways that we are planning on taking the fight in another — not another direction, but, hopefully, in a more positive way.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us, Ben Eaton of Black Belt Citizens, speaking to us from Montgomery, Alabama, about his town, Uniontown, dealing with coal ash; Mustafa Ali, former head of the environmental justice program at the Environmental Protection Agency; and finally, just back from Puerto Rico, Mekela Panditharatne of the Natural Resources Defense Council. We’ll link to your pieces in the Times and The Washington Post.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, who gets included in obituaries in The New York Times, and who gets left out? Stay with us.