At only 15 cents a ton, toxic coal ash “disappears” quickly in Puerto Rico
The arrogance and disregard for public health of the Virginia-based power giant, AES Corporation, is stunning. In 2002, AES, one of the world’s largest power companies, built a coal-fired power plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico without a solid waste landfill of any kind. Although the 450-MW power plant churns out almost 400,000 tons of toxic coal ash a year, AES has nowhere to safely dispose of the waste. Yet the situation is apparently working out just fine for AES.
From 2003 to 2004, the plant loaded its waste on 10,000-ton barges and sailed for the Dominican Republic. In the DR, AES dumped an estimated 80,000 tons of coal ash along beaches in the port towns of Arroyo Barill and Manzanillo, under the guise of future port “renovations.” After the ash sat on the beaches for about two years, blowing into a nearby village, the Dominican Republic sued AES in federal court for $80 million in damages and stopped the dumping. In 2009, a civil action was filed against AES, alleging severe birth defects were caused by the coal ash contamination.
Barred from dumping in the DR and still without a coal ash landfill in Puerto Rico, AES now rids itself of the hundreds of thousands of tons of waste by “selling” the toxic ash as structural fill. AES virtually gives away the coal ash at 15 cents a ton (or less) to anyone who will take it, providing free transportation to residential and commercial construction sites.
The coal ash is being used as fill at construction sites in southeastern Puerto Rico above the South Coast Aquifer—the sole source of potable water for more than 50,000 people. The coal ash is deposited within a few meters of public water wells, irrigation canals, streams, farms, wetlands, beaches and other sensitive areas. In some places, contractors have excavated huge holes that have been filled with coal below the water table. At one site, a virtual mountain of coal ash was dumped, similar to the illegal disposal of AES ash in the Dominican Republic.
A child plays near exposed deposits of coal ash in southeastern Puerto Rico.
While AES gives away the ash for pennies, asserting its safety as fill, AES saves millions in disposal costs. But the price is high for Puerto Rican communities. Fugitive dust fills the air near fill sites and unpaved ash roads, and toxic chemicals such as arsenic and lead threaten drinking water sources. Attorney Ruth Santiago, who is working to protect the health and environment of local residents from coal ash pollution explains: “The unbridled use of AES coal ash adversely affects air quality in neighboring communities, unique natural resources, such as the Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, and water bodies in coastal communities in southeastern Puerto Rico.” Ms. Santiago has met with Puerto Rican authorities, as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
To date, there are no plans for a landfill, and no action has been taken by authorities in Puerto Rico or the EPA to stop AES from distributing the ash. Yet, surely the Virginia-based company, which operates power plants in more than 20 countries, knows better than to expose the citizens of Puerto Rico to this dangerous waste.
“Ironically, the site of the AES coal plant is an ideal location for a solar energy project because of constant sunny weather and one of the lowest precipitation rates on the Island,” notes Santiago.