MAC: Mines and Communities

Toxic coal ash: A Caribbean time bomb

Published by MAC on 2016-04-12
Source: Bloomberg, Caribbean360

Environmental and health impacts of coal ash in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic

Omar Alfonso has written a three-part investigation, published by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, in collaboration with La Perla del Sur newspaper, about the environmental and health impacts of coal ash in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

AES Puerto Rico operates a coal power plant located in Guayama, Puerto Rico. The power plant has generated 454 megawatts of electriciy, about 15% of the island's  demand. The parent company, AES Corporation, is based in Virginia, USA, and operates in 17 countries across four continents.

MAC has covered coal ash issues many times. See for example: US Civil Rights Probe Examines Coal Ash Impact

Power Company AES Settles Claims That It Killed or Deformed Babies With Dumped Coal Ash

Jef Feeley and Mark Chediak

Bloomberg -

4 April 2016

AES Corp. settled a lawsuit accusing the power-generating company of allowing one of its units to dump coal ash on beaches in the Dominican Republic, which allegedly caused a spate of birth defects in children.

AES was slated to go to trial in state court in Delaware Monday over the birth-defect claims, but Kim Cephas, a court official, said the case had settled. The terms of the accord weren’t available.

Families of three Dominican children born without limbs, who suffered from gastrointestinal and other defects, sought about $30 million in damages. The case was the first of more than a half dozen set for trial in Delaware.

Amy Ackerman, an AES spokeswoman, and Ian Conner Bifferato, a lawyer for the families suing the company, didn’t immediately respond to phone and e-mail messages seeking comment on the settlement.

"It’s easier to sometimes quietly settle these things to get rid of them," Charles Fishman, an analyst for Morningstar Inc., said Monday. Fishman said he has a hold rating on AES’s shares and doesn’t own any.
‘Not an Admission’

"It’s not an admission that they did something illegal,” Fishman said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if you saw more of these types of things get settled because coal ash has become a high-profile issue."

Shares of Arlington, Virginia-based AES fell fell more than 1. 4 percent on news of the settlement and closed at $11.36, down more than 1.8 percent, in New York Stock Exchange composite trading.

Handling of ash generated by coal-fired power plants has been a hot-button environmental issue in the U.S. over the past 20 years. The Sierra Club estimates there are more than 1,000 ash-holding sites in the U.S. where 140 million tons are stockpiled each year.

In 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tightened regulations governing coal-ash disposal in the wake of the 2008 collapse of Tennessee Valley Authority containment dikes surrounding 1 billion gallons of sludge. A judge held the TVA liable in 2012 for damages to a Tennessee community near the facility.

The parents of Maximiliano Calcano, Isael Altagracia Andujar and Estanlyn Garcia Deogracia, the three Dominican children, sued AES, which is incorporated in Delaware, in 2009.

18 Countries

The settlement of the Dominican birth-defect cases comes after AES, which operates in 18 countries, agreed in 2007 to pay $6 million to settle a suit filed by the government of the Dominican Republic over coal-ash dumping.

The Dominican government alleged an AES unit illegally dumped more than 57,000 tons of the ash from its coal-fired plant in Guayamam, Puerto Rico, onto the areas of Manzanillo and Samana Bay in the island’s northern section.

Two other women sued AES claiming in-utero exposure to the coal ash led to the early deaths of their children, who were also born with birth defects, according to court filings.

The parents contend alleged AES officials misled them and Dominican officials into believing the coal ash wasn’t toxic and “might be profitably utilized by the residents of Samana as construction material,” according to the filings.

The case is Pallano v. AES Corp., N09C-11-021, Superior Court of Delaware (Wilmington).

Toxic Ash: A Caribbean time bomb Part 1 – Something happened in Arroyo Barril

Omar Alfonso

Caribbean360 -

30 March 2016

Eight years have passed, but Amparo Andújar Maldonado does not forget. She lost her first child while she was approaching the fifth month of her pregnancy.

Nor does she erase from her mind giving birth to a disfigured fetus, with cranial malformation, something incomprehensible for a healthy 27-year-old woman getting quality prenatal care.

But Amparo was not alone. From 2005 to 2008, the rate of miscarriages and premature births rose suddenly in the Encantado neighborhood of Arroyo Barril, a working-class rural and coastal town, north of the Dominican Republic. An area rich in natural treasures such as the Bay of Samaná, global sanctuary for humpback whales.

Amaparo’s friend, Rosa María Andújar, was also one of the statistics. She gave birth to a child with exposed intestines and six fingers and toes. The newborn died not long after birth, in June 2008.

Months later, another neighbour, Maribel Mercedes, gave birth to Siamese twins who also died in a short time. Five babies were born with omphalocele – exposed intestines – between August and November of that year, in neighbouring districts Los Róbalos, La Pascuala and Gri-Gri. Only one of them survived.

When Andújar Maldonado was asked what explanation health authorities gave about her case and about the unusual number of similar cases in the region, her answer was simple: “None”.

Amaparo’s house is located less than half a kilometre from the dock, and during the pregnancy she would regularly go to the beach “to get some air”.

“I think it was because of that,” she said.

The “that” refers to the tons of coal ash that was abandoned in the Juan Pablo Duarte dock at Arroyo Barril for almost four years. Mounds of more than 27 thousand tons of the grayish residue arrived at the pier from the AES carbon plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico, and were unloaded, steps from the coast, in the open, and without a management plan, on October 2003.

Since 2002, the company AES has generated between 400 and 1,600 tons of this waste daily, while producing the electricity it sells to the Puerto Rico Power Authority (PREPA). Under a contract with the government, it bound itself to export the waste for which it did not find commercial use.

Neighbours and ex-employees of the Dominican port acknowledged that an undetermined amount of that ash material, identified by locals as “rock ash”, ended up in the sea. When this happened, it was common to encounter dead fish along the coast.

“The water that came down would kill the fish,” Miguel Ángel Paredes Jiménez was convinced. He was the security chief at the Arroyo Barril port in the year 2004.

Some of the ash, they said, was also dragged for months by the coastal breeze to nearby communities, agricultural land and to the mountains of the town.

A sample analysis conducted by the Institute of Chemistry at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo, released in April 2004, confirmed that the waste brought from Puerto Rico was loaded with heavy metals. Specifically, they identified amounts of beryllium, vanadium and cadmium “exceeding the levels of international standards”, and also high concentrations of arsenic.

The Technical University of Delft, in the Netherlands, describes beryllium as one of the “most toxic known” elements in the world since “it can be very harmful when inhaled by humans” and may “increase the chances of developing cancer and DNA damage.” In addition, it can accumulate in the air, soil and water.

By 2005, about 1,600 families lived in the village of Arroyo Barril and nearly 40 per cent of them had no running water at home, so they went to nearby rivers and springs for drinking water. Today, a minority continues the same practice.

The alert caused by the rise in miscarriages in those years was such that regional leaders of the Ministry of Health adopted an extraordinary measure.

“We asked the women of age to prevent pregnancy for a while, because there were many abortions,” recalled Dr. Rosa Domingo Maleno who, since 2004, has been Provincial Director of Health in the Samaná region, to which Arroyo Barril is assigned.

Domingo Maleno could not provide figures of registered miscarriages during those years.

“The land is contaminated”

Facing one of the gorges of the Encantado neighborhood, and passing the dirt road leading to Amparo’s home, lives Concepción García Bueno, a strong farmer who can no longer do his job.

Surrounded by neighbours, he explained that since the arrival of rock ash in the Arroyo Barril dock, fruit trees no longer produce. The plantains, orange, grapefruit, pigeon peas and avocado no longer grow in his orchard.

“Here in our territory you can ask around if anyone can bring you an orange or a grapefruit. It doesn’t exist; there are none. And that’s because of this epidemic,” he said referring to the mountains of ash.

“The leaves have dried and fallen. They are disappearing. The land here in our territory doesn’t produce them. The soil is affected, it’s polluted,” he said.

“Had you noticed a similar problem before?” he was asked.

“Never, never. (We had not had) any epidemics. Thereafter, it has been a disaster,” he said. “But we are already contaminated and there is no way out of this evil.”

Since the arrival of the ash, he added, the soil that for decades gave food to his family and neighbours has transformed. Now they are forced to buy legumes, fruits and vegetables from farmers or sellers from other areas.

How could the fields of Arroyo Barril be contaminated with ash waste if the mountains of waste were in the dock? García Bueno gave a quick and clear answer: through the sea breeze.

“My mother’s house is half a kilometre away from where they deposited that and they had to be cleaning all the time. It was like a powder, the one they use for babies,” he said.

But the ash was also spread another way.

As explained by Jose Eligio García Jiménez, a religious leader and driver of the Province of Samaná, a few months after the arrival of the coal ash, hundreds of people went to the dock at Arroyo Barril to take some home, after the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and port operators said the material could be used for construction and flooring.

García Jiménez said it was not unusual to see carpets of ash at the entrances and in courtyards of homes, even in the municipalities of Sánchez and El Limón, located more than 20 kilometres from the port.

“Many people came to load (the ashes) in trucks to throw in front of their yard because it was something that looked nice, like a white sand, something pretty. And that was the curse,” he said.

“Then all those people came in sick. All of them.”

“First, the children and then, adults” began to manifest bone pain, fever, swelling in the body and itching or hives, among other symptoms, he said. Unlike diseases such as dengue fever, common in tropical areas, the symptoms persisted and lasted for months.

“We were saying ‘but why does the whole family, in one house, have all these symptoms of illness and nobody knew what it was?’ Nobody. And it was ‘that’ killing us. The rock ash.”

María Andújar Mercedes, another neighbour of the dock, added that families who used the ash as construction material also used it to cover the floors of their kitchens because it is common in the area to have dirt floor kitchens separated from the houses.

Even the coconuts were affected

Among those who raised a voice of alarm was Eugenio Andújar Maldonado, the current president of the Neighbours United for Peace of Arroyo Barril.

Standing in front of the Nagua Samaná Highway, Andújar pointed at coconut palms and said they were the first indicator that something strange was happening.

“Many coconut trees were damaged, that is, they dried,” he recalled.

In Arroyo Barril, as in the rest of the Province of Samaná, economic activity is centered on tourism, fishing and agriculture. In the latter, the main agricultural product was the coconut, as confirmed by the Ministry of Agriculture of Samaná.

The community leader also noted that since the coal ash spill, local production of yams, cassava, plantain, grapefruit and avocado inexplicably dwindled “up to 70 per cent”.

Drought is a recent phenomenon and other sources of pollution that can damage soil do not exist near Arroyo Barril. As an example, he said the nearest landfill is located 15 kilometres from the town; the Cotuí gold processing plant is 200 kilometres away; and the nearest cement plant is situated in the Province of Santiago, “260 kilometres from here”.

In his own flesh

Dr. Eduardo Ortiz Mejías, then assigned to the Primary Care Unit of Arroyo Barril, also remembers precisely these incidents, some of which caught the public attention.

In fact, the doctor not only certified that the frequency of miscarriages and births of children with deformities was atypical in Arroyo Barril between 2005 and 2008, but recalled how he was surprised to learn of the loss of his firstborn in 2006.

His wife was eight weeks into her pregnancy. “On January 26, even though we took all the preventive measures, she lost the baby,” he said.

The doctor, now active in the Leopoldo Pou Hospital at Samaná Province, explained that this was the first and only time in their family histories that such a tragedy occurred.

He confessed that accepting and adjusting to it was difficult.

As a man of science, it was challenging to find an explanation for what happened. But he recognized that something was happening in Arroyo Barril and moved away from there in 2005.

“I come from a contaminated town, completely polluted, called San Pedro de Macoris, a province where there are many free trade zones and there is a very broad environmental impact. But when I am there, in San Pedro, I don’t see the diseases that I’ve seen there,” he said.

Among things he observed in Arroyo Barril were rashes, miscarriages, repeated abortions, premature births, malformations “and what was seen only in textbooks”: Siamese twins.

“We also had children who were born without the two extremities. This condition is called amelia,” he added.

However, the problem is complicated because, in his opinion, the incidence of these cases persists.

“We’ve had the bad luck that we do not know anymore when the pregnant women (in Arroyo Barril) will give birth. What is the cause? We do not know,” he said.

“They just say ‘it is God’s destiny’, ‘it had to happen’, but if a thorough investigation is done I think we can come down to the real reasons,” the doctor added.

The study would indicate whether Arroyo Barril has been contaminated by toxins, and the origin. In addition, it would shed light on the possible presence of heavy metals in the blood of residents and in water and agricultural lands of the municipality.

This request is supported by Dr. Nabal Ireon Báez Beevers, Area Manager of Health at the Province of Samaná, who said that the landing of the coal ash never should have happened, let alone in an area which is close to populated communities.

Exposure to toxic chemicals, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics has said, is a problem that threatens human reproduction “disproportionately among the poor.”

For example, in 2015 it concluded that “miscarriages, stillbirths, impaired fetal growth, congenital malformations, alteration or reduction of neural development and cognitive function” are some of the effects on reproductive health related to exposure to chemicals and air pollutants.

The group representing gynecologists and obstetricians from 125 countries also ruled that negligible exposures to heavy metals during the prenatal period may interfere with the development of a child, “triggering adverse health consequences that may manifest through the life expectancy”.

A thorough investigation on this topic could materialize soon in Arroyo Barril if the claims in a prolonged legal battle against AES Puerto Rico and its parent company, AES Corporation, are supported by the court, said Báez Beevers.

The civil lawsuit filed by lawyers representing about 20 residents of Samaná was presented in 2009 before the Superior Court of Delaware. The suit alleges that the 27 thousand tons of coal ash discharged in Arroyo Barril was toxic and sickened people in the area.

The Center for Investigative Journalism learned that last February 6, AES Corporation attorneys met at a hotel in Santo Domingo with the plaintiffs and their lawyers, and presented a proposal for settlement. This happened after the Center conducted on-site interviews related to this investigation.

The plaintiffs rejected the offer, so the case being heard before the presiding judge of the Superior Court of Delaware, Jan R. Jurden, continues.

Manuel Mata, chief executive of AES Puerto Rico, did not agree to be interviewed by the Center for Investigative Journalism.

The story repeats at the border

Another witness to what happened with the ashes is lawyer and current Deputy Attorney General of the Dominican Republic, Ramón Madera Arias.

But he didn’t become aware of the rock ash in Samaná. It was in the province of Montecristi, located on the northwestern tip of the Dominican Republic at the border with Haiti, where the company Trans-Dominican Development in 2003 unloaded 30,000 tons of the coal ash that was discarded by AES in Guayama, Puerto Rico.

As stated in the official permit issued by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of the country in 2003, the mountains of ash material brought to the port of Manzanillo would be used to expand its cargo area.

However, Madera Arias, then Attorney General for Environmental Defense, warned that the compacted ashes had been discharged less than 100 metres from the beach and the adjacent wetland was disappearing.

“Some mangroves were there. That was a very green area and it started to dry, to deteriorate, and to damage,” he explained. “And a dust polluting the air was flying around.”

In a previous conversation, journalist Arsenio Cruz from the El Caribe daily newspaper had notified Madera Arias that a coal ash cloud had flooded the town of Manzanillo and that “everyone is choking; they can’t take it.”

“People couldn’t lie down in their homes, because even the blankets, the bed, was filled with that dust. It had penetrated (the homes), it had flown with the breeze,” he recalled.

Madera Arias rushed to the scene, confirmed the facts and ordered the immediate end to activities associated with ash handling. He also banned the importation of the waste, as another shipment was on its way.

This, however, did not stop the wave of bad health which affected many of the 10,000 residents of the municipality, now known as Pepillo Salcedo.

“In Manzanillo, more than 90 per cent of the people had welts, itching, skin diseases,” he said. “If you talked to 100 people in the town, 80 or 90 would have the symptoms…but the same happened in Carbonera, which is two or three kilometres away,” he said.

The explanation offered by Madera Arias is that Carbonera receives the sea breeze directly from Manzanillo.

Another tragedy, the official regretted, was that “10 to 12 people who were healthy and young” were diagnosed with skin cancer and lung cancer. The victims were all known to Madera Arias given that he is a native of the province.

Toxic Ash: A Caribbean time bomb Part 2 – They promised jobs… and brought ashes

Omar Alfonso

Caribbean360 -

31 March 2016

They went looking for Víctor Rodríguez Aguirre at his home in the Santa Ana sector of barrio Jobos Guayama.

He was a critical player. The young father resided in one of the most densely populated zones near the AES carbon plant and knew what it was like to live in poverty.

He became a local sports leader who strived to help his community move forward. He focused particularly on young students with no job prospects on the horizon.

His desire for progress and his influence in the neighborhood were key to convincing others to believe in the promise that AES would invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the construction of a power generating plant that would bring wages and prosperity to the region.

“They took us to Hartford, Connecticut, to see the AES facilities,” Rodríguez Aguirre recalled, sitting in a chair in the balcony of his home. “And what we saw there was very positive; it was in line with what we had been told would be established here in Puerto Rico,” he said.

But the enthusiasm didn’t last long. From Barranca and Pozuelo to Puente de Jobos and from Miramar to San Martin, and even in Los Mosquitos, disappointment spread quickly among neighbours, like the smoke left behind by the truckloads of ash.

“Even the smallest alleys were filled completely with the ashes. Then they covered it with white stone and other materials to hide it,” Rodríguez Aguirre said.

“That’s not what was promised. The ashes were not supposed to be left here in Puerto Rico. That’s the reason why everyone thought it would be positive, that it was worth it,” he said.

Between 2004 and 2011, over two million tons of ash discarded by the AES plant in Guayama were converted into filling for new construction projects and roads in the town, as well as in the cities of San Juan, Dorado, Toa Alta, Caguas, Juncos, Ponce, Santa Isabel, Coamo, Arroyo and Mayagüez. The ashes were also used for the construction of ponds, roads and bridges adjacent to streams, exposed to wind or rain, and were even abandoned in vacant lots in the southern region of Puerto Rico.

This all happened while the Puerto Rican government and federal agencies looked the other way.

When you dig soil, build a fence or plant a garden in the courtyard of a newly built home in some of the aforementioned municipalities, it is common to unearth thick layers of grey dust.

AES, the multinational corporation that has produced the ash since 2002 and bills nearly a million dollars daily to the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) for the sale of coal-based electricity, argues that the ash is not toxic waste and is safe for citizens and the environment.

Company executives maintain that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists the ashes as non-hazardous waste and indicates that it can be used as a filler in construction projects.

Nonetheless, four years ago that same federal agency ordered and paid for a chemical analysis that debunked this thesis, in response to complaints from environmental groups such as Diálogo Ambiental.

The research conducted exclusively with coal ash from the AES plant in Guayama concluded that this waste tends to release heavy metals in concentrations that exceed up to 9,000 times federal safety standards, upon contact with liquids and soil.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and ARCADIS laboratories in North Carolina also detected excessive levels of arsenic, boron, chloride and chromium in these metals, as well as harmful traces of lithium, molybdenum, selenium and thallium.

With these qualities and concentrations, EPA could classify AES waste – or any similar one – as a dangerous, toxic and carcinogenic substance. But it did not.

Neither the EPA nor its homonymous local agency, the Environmental Quality Board (EQB), reported these findings to the plant’s neighbours or to the communities impacted by the transportation and unloading of the material.

Instead, the EPA made some references to the report in its website and, to this day, the agency only provides the final study upon request.

Deadly cocktail

There is strong evidence about the effects of high concentrations of heavy metals on human health and the environment.

For example, the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands, one of the most prestigious research centers in Europe, points out that the intake of inorganic arsenic can increase the chances of developing skin, lung, and liver cancer and lymphoma.

Very high exposure can also cause infertility in women and miscarriages, damage to the brain, even to the DNA.

On the other hand, thallium detected in the ashes in Guayama – in concentrations 14 to 31 times above the maximum allowed – can be absorbed by the body very effectively through skin, respiratory organs and the digestive tract, according to the Vanderbilt and ARCADIS and the Technical University of Delft studies.

One of the active ingredients in rat poison, thallium intake can cause nerve and congenital damage in children, and even death.

The chemical analysis commissioned by the EPA also found that the ash can have chromium concentration between 470 and 9,000 times above the acceptable threshold.

Previous studies, such as the one funded by the United States Department of Energy in 2006, have agreed that 97 per cent of the chromium released by coal ash is of the hexavalent type, a highly toxic compound.

Known for its reference in the film “Erin Brockovich”, hexavalent chromium causes cancer in animals, according to laboratory tests conducted by the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health between 2006 and 2008.

Due to its constitution, coal ash is water soluble so it is common for the substance to pollute aquifers, streams or rivers, and it can even be assimilated by plants, fish and humans, according to Chemistry PhD. Osvaldo Rosario López.

Rosario López, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, has a specialization in EPA Environmental Chemistry, worked for a decade as a consultant to the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and has spent 35 years as a researcher.

He warned that the main impact of Vanderbilt and ARCADIS findings is that wherever the ashes are taken, “they carry with them these toxins and carcinogens and thus they have the potential to do damage in the locality where you unload them and to all those exposed in the areas.”

They live on top the ashes

Photos and documents held by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism (CPIPR in Spanish) detail how this toxic waste ended up in at least 36 locations in Santa Isabel, Salinas and Guayama.

Among them are the developments Parque Gabriela II, Valles de Salinas, Marbella, Vistas de Salinas, Estancias de Dulces Sueños, Mar del Caribe and Villa Serena. The ash was also deposited in commercial spaces such as Arboleda Shopping Court, Porto Fino Plaza, Los Recreos Plaza and Arroyo Town Center.

A plot of land belonging to the Eta Sigma Alpha fraternity, near Punta Guilarte Beach, and close to three water wells, were also classified as being in the flood zone.

Some images confirm the widespread disposal of toxic material at the banks of the Saco and Guamaní rivers.

On the other hand, a source who asked not to be identified told the CPIPR that tons of ashes from AES were buried between 2004 and 2008 on public land of high agricultural value, typically used for planting vegetables, and managed by the Land Authority of Puerto Rico in Salinas. The material was mostly used as filling for roads and, in some cases, the greyish residue was not covered with any other material.

The communities have complained that neither the company nor government agencies have taken corrective action concerning the inappropriate disposal of this pollutant. AES executives, officials from the EPA, the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) and the Puerto Rico and federal departments of Justice have been advised of these complaints since September 2012, according to a Notice of Intent to Sue from the legal aid organization Public Justice.

Meanwhile, AES has continued to produce toxic coal ash at a rate of 400 to 1,600 tons per day, or about 300,000 tons per year, according to their own estimates. To help understand the magnitude of the company’s ash waste production, a car can weigh between one and two tons.

Given the weight of the ashes and the type of vehicles used, part of this waste ends up spread along the routes chosen to transport it from Guayama to landfills in Peñuelas and Humacao. These locations have received the waste without authorization or supervision of the Environmental Quality Board.

As recently as October 15, the EQB acknowledged in writing that during 2015, 350,000 tons in the Humacao landfill and another 7,000 tons of ash were illegally unloaded in the Peñuelas landfill.

These violations have not resulted in fines or cancellation of permits and contracts.

Coal ash is also radioactive

The question of why regulatory agencies do not comply with their own laws or stop the dangerous disposal of toxic material around the island, emerged again last year when another suspicion was confirmed.

Researchers at Duke University in North Carolina certified that coal ash also has radioactivity levels up to ten times higher than the coal, “due to the way the combustion process concentrates radioactive substances”, as published by the American Chemical Society magazine.

“Right now there is no standard or safe level of exposure to radioisotopes. Any exposure is unacceptable,” said Rosario Lopez.

The findings and conclusions of the scientific team from Duke match another analysis done in 2010 where ashes found in neighborhood Parque Gabriela in Salinas were evaluated. Test America Savannah laboratory certified not only toxic levels of arsenic, chromium, thallium, lead and molybdenum in that waste, but also excessive presence of alpha radiation.

The EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognize that when radioactive particles are inhaled, the risk of cancer increases significantly. These particles disperse easily when handled, transported and unloaded without control mechanisms.

According to the latest Cancer Registry of Puerto Rico Newsletter, the municipalities of Salinas, Coamo, Santa Isabel, Juana Díaz and Ponce recorded the highest incidence of all types of cancer between 2008 and 2012. Meanwhile, higher mortality was reported among people with cancer residing in Guayama, Salinas, Santa Isabel, Ponce, Guayanilla and Peñuelas.

“Does the EPA know about all this (the radioactivity)?” CPIPR asked Dr. Rosario Lopez.

“Oh! They know. They know very well and the coal company consultants also know it. They are also scientists,” he replied.

“And what is completely immoral is that, knowingly, the health and the quality of life of the people is being sacrificed for economic greed. That’s what it comes down to. Money.”

According to references from the Public Justice Organization, it would cost AES between $100 and $200 per ton to properly dispose of this waste, but the company has preferred not to take on that expense.

The time bomb is ready

Meanwhile, the pollutants from the ashes seep through the ground and the Southern Aquifer.

As warned by Dr. Rosario Lopez, in all the places where the coal ash was used as a filler, there is a threat of irreversible pollution with heavy metals. He believes it is “only a matter of time” before the toxic chemicals leak into water supplies like the Southern Aquifer, making them unusable.

His remarks are not alarmist. An internal memo of the EPA, obtained by the CPIPR, shows how the administrator of Region 2, Judith Enck, alerted the president of the Environmental Quality Board, Pedro Nieves Miranda, to this same issue on November 7, 2011. Enck was concerned and mentioned specific cases and lawsuits filed in the US regarding contamination of aquifers with toxic elements in coal ash.

This mention, however, is not the only one. EPA has copious evidence of the pollution of aquifers and wells “leached” by coal ash in the United States, in particular with hexavalent chromium.

For example, the federal agency found that the chromium present in an aquifer contaminated by an ash landfill in Ohio reached 1.68 parts per million, a figure that exceeds 84,000 times the amount allowed by federal regulations.

In more well-known cases in the United States – like in Town of Pines, Indiana and Chesapeake, Virginia – important drinking water supplies were contaminated with coal ash that had been used as construction filler, like in Puerto Rico. In 17 states, there are about 20 cases tested and documented by the EPA. At the same time, the company investigates hundreds of additional complaints.

Water extraction has been banned in places where chromium and other heavy metals contamination has been found.

According to Puerto Rico’s chief adviser on water issues for EPA, Carl Axel Soderberg Mayoral, the Southern Aquifer is an elaborate network of drinking water wells that runs between the municipalities of Guayama to Peñuelas.

At least 35 million gallons are extracted from it every day to serve around 140,000 people, and for residents and businesses in Salinas it is the only supply of drinking water.

Although Soderberg Mayoral said he was unaware of EPA studies in which the toxicity of coal ash is recognized, he described the current state of the aquifer as critical due to salinization, and acknowledged that another threat to this resource could be detrimental, not only for residents but also to commercial and industrial growth in the area.

“The Southern Aquifer is in a critical situation… and therefore deserves special protection,” he said.

He further argued that if consumption from this water resource was ever banned “there will be a serious social economic problem,” especially for the municipality of Salinas.

“Even if they look for money, where there’s none, in order to bring an alternate superficial supply, there would be extreme water rationing, permanently, having to bring in water through tanker trucks. There is nothing else to do,” he concluded.

“It’s not whether it’s going to happen or not, it’s a matter of when will it happen,” Dr. Rosario Lopez insisted.

Toxic Ash: A Caribbean time bomb Part 3 – Puerto Rico and EPA amend AES contract behind closed doors

Omar Alfonso

Caribbean360 -

1 April 2016

On a summer day in 2015, the elevator doors at the headquarters of the Puerto Rico Electric and Power Authority (PREPA) in Santurce opened.

Off the elevator walked out Manuel Mata, President of AES Puerto Rico, a company that since 2002 has sold 454 megawatts of electricity to the public corporation derived from its coal fuel plant in Guayama. The annual invoice for the deal exceeds US$300 million.

Without attracting attention and protected from public scrutiny, Mata walked up to the executive offices and signed a legal document. It dealt with an amendment in the contract made between the multinational company and PREPA: a clause that prohibited the company from disposing its waste derived from the burning of the coal on any part of the island.

A few days later, on July 17, 2015, the agreement was completed. Once signed by Carlos Castro Montalvo, the former Interim Director of PREPA, the rules of the game changed. This action allowed for the disposal of millions of tons of toxic waste in garbage landfills on the island and paved the way for AES to save millions of dollars because it would not be forced to export the coal ashes as it had promised PREPA on October 11, 1994.

The approved amendment did not represent any tangible benefit for the 1.4 million clients billed by PREPA. Neither did it benefit the thousands of people who are exposed to the effects of coal ashes on the island.

The surprising new arrangement forfeited the agreement made by AES with the Planning Board on May 1, 1996 and with the facts the company certified in its Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

According to the Location Permit approved by Norma Burgos Andújar, the former President of the Planning Board, AES had agreed to dispose of the ashes out of Puerto Rico, “including the possibility of returning them” to their place of origin, the Republic of Colombia.

AES also agreed in the EIS that it would not deposit the ashes or its derivatives as “solid waste products in the landfills of Puerto Rico.”

In a lawsuit brought by ecologists groups, the now deceased Puerto Rico Supreme Court Judge, Jaime Fuster Berlingeri, decided in favour of the corporation and stated on June 29, 1998 that “neither the ashes nor its derivatives would be deposited as solid waste in the landfills in Puerto Rico.”

Now, all these guarantees became null and void.

Contradictions of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency

In 2014 and 2015, more than 350 million tons of AES ashes were illegally dumped at the Humacao landfill, and another 7,000 tons was dumped in the Peñuelas landfill, as admitted by the Environmental Quality Board (EQB).

In addition, since AES started producing electricity more than a decade ago, undetermined quantities of waste have ended up in residential and commercial areas on the island, exposing the soil, bodies of water, and human beings to toxic material.

These facts were acknowledged in a phone interview with Judith Enck, Region 2 Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

“The general concern is heavy metals. Here we found elevated levels of arsenic, so that gave us a very strong position to say ‘stop the spreading this all over Puerto Rico’,” the official expressed.

However, none of these violations has led to a revocation of permits.

On the contrary, in spite of the concerns, it was Enck, the EPA’s highest-ranking official in the Caribbean, who recommended through a letter, that the prohibition be lifted so that AES would dispose of the ashes in landfills or certified deposits, in or outside the island.

“An appropriate disposal option needs to be available for the material,” she wrote on August 14, 2014 to the former president of the EQB, Laura Vélez Vélez and past PREPA Executive Director, Juan Alicea Flores.

In an interview with the Center for Investigative Journalism of Puerto Rico (CIJPR), Enck claimed that her intention was to stop the “uncontrollable” spread of coal ashes in Puerto Rico and to dispose of them in authorized locations.

As a condition, she determined that the landfills and containers that hold the ashes needed to have coatings or synthetic liners to reduce the possibility that the nearby ground and bodies of waters would be polluted with heavy metals, especially, with arsenic.

Nevertheless, neither Enck nor the EPA has given instructions to provide protection to wells that have been threatened for a decade with heavy metal contamination due to the tons of compressed ashes on the island’s surfaces.

The CIJPR asked: Can the coal ash residue pollute the Aquifer of the South?

“It’s possible that there’s been ground water contamination,” Enck admitted. “We’re not aware of the environmental damage at this time, but I am very interested in AES installing theses liners and having this controlled staging area that would then lead to the export of the ash off the island. But you’re absolutely right. There has been problems around the country (US) with coal ash disposal. Pretty significant problems.”

Likewise, when we asked her whether it was not better to make AES export the surplus of ashes, as was guaranteed by the private company to the government of Puerto Rico in the 1990s, Enck pointed out a jurisdictional problem.

“The EPA does not have the legal authority to say ‘you have to ship it out of the island.’ We do have the authority to say that they should be taken to a legitimate landfill. If the government of Puerto Rico wanted to do that (exportation orders), they could do that,” she added.

Hot potato

But the executive director of PREPA, Javier Quintana Méndez, said that based on Enck’s written recommendation and the emergence of new federal environmental regulations —which allowed AES to keep its ash production in Puerto Rico— the public corporation allowed the company to amend the contract.

“Therefore, that clause was no longer necessary to us. And so, the amendment allowed AES to be able to dispose of those ashes in landfills on the island,” he insisted.

When faced with evidence presented in the media that the multinational company did not comply with the original clause of the contract for many years, Quintana Méndez insisted that at that time he was not the executive director.

In his own defence, the official stressed that the Authority is “always on watch for environmental compliance.” However, this premise contradicts PREPA’s historical record. For example, the public corporation has not complied with the federal environmental standards known as Mercury Air Toxic Standards (MATS) since last year.

On the other hand, Quintana Méndez found it difficult to explain who had requested that the contract be altered. “In this particular case, it is through a request made by the company as well as from information that we received from the EPA, in terms that the company requested the amendment.”

But in a letter sent to the PREPA and the EQB in 2014, the public official states: “The Puerto Rico Electric Authority (PREPA) has asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board (EQB) to confirm in writing whether they believe that the 1994 Power Purchase and Operating Agreement between PREPA and AES Puerto Rico L.P. should be modified to allow the coal combustion residuals (CCRs) i.e. coal ash, generated by AES power plant in Guayama PR to be disposed of in a landfill in Puerto Rico.”

Quintana Méndez also avoided answering how this change could benefit more than a million residential, commercial, and industrial PREPA clients.

“Well, look, this is an internal issue of the corporation and, basically, there is a resolution from the environmental agencies that it is acceptable that they use the landfills to dispose of the ashes,” he said.

Likewise, Quintana Méndez stated that he did not know how much AES would save through the amendment of the contract.

“Do you have any idea how much it would cost to export the ashes?” asked the CIJPR.

“I have no idea, but I believe it should be a more costly activity than disposing them in a landfill,” he answered.

The executive director also assured that he did not have enough information to give a judgment on Agremax, a commercial product created by AES with moistened coal ashes that it has tried unsuccessfully to sell as a construction aggregate.

However, when we showed him a photograph taken in 2006 in which he appeared with high-ranking AES executives being presented Environmental Excellence awards from the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association, the official responded by saying that he was often invited to awards ceremonies and to having his picture taken with a group.

At that time, Quintana Méndez served as the executive director of the Solid Waste Authority and during the awards presentation, AES was recognized for “beneficial usage” of products derived from coal combustion.

Not well informed

Enck, on the other hand, asked the CIJPR to pay “special attention to the fact” that the ashes that are produced in Guayama “are no longer being dispersed throughout the island.”

At the same time, she insisted that AES “is exporting them to Alabama.”

When confronted with proof of cargo trucks moving tons of ashes to the Peñuelas and Humacao landfills, the EPA administrator promised to investigate further.

Five days later, Enck asked to correct the record.

“AES has communicated to EPA that they are not sending Agremax to Alabama, and haven’t done so for a few years,” Elías Rodríguez, representing the official, wrote on January 26.

From that moment on, written communication between AES Puerto Rico representatives and the CIJPR to coordinate an interview with their president, Manuel Mata, was interrupted, although a preliminary date had been set for the encounter.

Unfortunate Scandal

Ruth Santiago Quiñones — an environmental rights lawyer that knows the beginnings of AES in Guayama — described the change to the contract as “unfortunate.” Santiago Quiñones belongs to the Diálogo Ambiental organization, which has censured AES for years for the contamination it has caused.

“This was not the original and legal plan. It was a requirement set for them to operate and they have violated it for a long time,” she continued.

In addition, Santiago Quiñones questioned the validity of the procedure, since the Planning Board has not amended its resolution to allow for the disposal of the ashes on the island “even less with the Supreme Court, that approved the operation of the plant based on that condition.”

“The fact is that there is no way the court would amend it. It would have to be a new case,” she indicated.

Juan Rosario Maldonado, from Misión Industrial, an organization that in the 1990s challenged the courts in relation to the permits awarded to AES, agreed with the attorney.

It was Rosario, as the consumers’ representative in the PREPA Governing Board, who brought repeated objections to amending the contract with AES between 2012 and 2015, “because it was a company that had violated its environmental contract.”

“However, they waited until I left my position to do it.” He condemned the decision after learning that the contract had been changed a month after his term on the Board expired.

“I would have made a public scandal since this is barbarian to me. The company told me that it was not going to deposit the ashes here and then it violated the contract. I think it is a scandal to continue doing business with them,” he said.

Another matter is the lack of transparency, since the PREPA Governing Board did not communicate the meeting where the changes were approved for AES, or publish the information online.

The executive director of the Authority pointed out that the meetings where issues related to contracts are discussed or “privileged information are not public meetings and are so provided in Law 57.”

However, that same Law 57 of July 1, 2014 states that PREPA has to publish all of its contracts on the Internet “within a period of 10 calendar days” upon signing.

But it was not until the CIJPR started to publish the series of reports on the impact of the coal ashes, that PREPA published the amended contract on their webpage.

Red flag

Osvaldo Rosario López, Chemistry PhD, warned that the EPA, PREPA and the EQB now “go hand in hand” in creating new problems for the landfills on the island.

“I have seen trucks unloading ashes to cover trash, where the winds lifts the trash and transports it for kilometres downwind to communities that breathe them (ashes) and no one in the government is doing anything to protect them,” he said.

Upon learning about this matter, María Gunnoe, winner of the 2009 Goldman Award for her struggles against mining exploitation in the United States, gave a warning to the communities: “It is very difficult for me to trust that the government will deal with this enormous problem, because it is our government that has created it.”

Gunnoe has called for solidarity and organization, taking into account her three decades of condemning the destruction of Appalachian mountains and polluting rivers and streams in the zone.

“The strategies put in place in Puerto Rico are the same ones they used in the Appalachians. Divide to conquer is always the same first move that the corporations use to depopulate and pollute communities,” she added.

“On many occasions, we have encountered extreme violence with non-violent actions, trying to establish peace,” she continued. “That’s why it is time that we all unite at a worldwide level to say in one voice that producing electricity through pollution is inhumane.”

(Jason Rodríguez Grafal collaborated in this article.)

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