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Tr-Ash Talk: Puerto Rico Communities Seek Justice, Protection

(Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans is co-author of this blog item)
Fed up with the illegal dumping of toxic waste in their communities, a group of concerned citizens from Guayama and Salinas, Puerto Rico, Comité Dialogo Ambiental (CDA), has drawn a line in the sand. CDA announced yesterday that they will take AES Corporation—theVirginia-based energy giant—to federal court unless it meets the group’s demands and stops the dangerous dumping of toxic waste from its Guayama power plant.
 
Salinas attorney Ruth Santiago and Public Justice, a national public interest law firm, sent a Notice of Intent to Sue this week on behalf of CDA, asserting that AES’ practice of dumping toxic coal ash in residential areas poses an “imminent and substantial endangerment” to health and the environment.

  

The AES’ Guayama power plant produces 400,000 tons of coal ash a year – toxic waste that contains arsenic, radioactive isotopes, hexavalent chromium and other heavy metals. But, despite its prodigious generation of dangerous waste, AES has never built a landfill to contain the polluted byproduct since it opened the plant in 2002. Instead, AES sells the waste to local contractors for pennies a ton to build roads and housing developments.
 
To make matters worse, the Commonwealth does not require that precautions be taken to prevent coal ash from coming into contact with people or the environment. As a result, contractors have dumped the coal ash in residential neighborhoods and near drinking water wells. Toxic dust fills the air near dozens of fill sites, and poisonous chemicals such as arsenic and hexavalent chromium threaten drinking water.
  
“Residents of Salinas and Guayama warned that it would contaminate the only source of potable water for tens of thousands of people who rely on the South Coast Aquifer,” said Ruth Santiago.
 
In addition, toxic dust adds to the long list of environmental triggers that families living with asthma must worry about. Children in Puerto Rico  are particularly vulnerable since they are more likely to suffer from asthma than children in the continental U.S., and exposure to toxic chemicals can only aggravate the health risks and the burden families will have to shoulder as asthma attacks result in hospitalization, missed days at school and absence from work for parents. 
 
This is not the first time that AES has contaminated Caribbean communities. AES dumped its toxic ash in the Dominican Republic before it spread its poison locally. When the Guayama plant opened, AES sent thousands of tons of toxic ash to the Dominican Republic, where it was dumped in Samaná Province, contaminating Manzanillo and ruining Samaria Bay. In 2005, the Dominican Republic sued AES, saying that the ash contained unsafe levels of cancer-causing metals and radioactive materials and that it polluted the environment and harmed residents’ health. Citizens exposed to the ash suffered health problems. The case settled for $6 million, and AES stopped shipping coal ash to the Dominican Republic.
 
 “After that, AES took the cheap and easy route and started dumping this carcinogenic waste in Puerto Rico without any regard for the health of the local people or their environment,” said Public Justice attorney Richard Webster.
  
Without even one landfill, AES found a home for the ash in southeastern Puerto Rico, where whole neighborhoods have been built atop the waste. CDA’s suit seeks protection and remediation from the widespread dumping. The notice letter demands that AES remove coal ash that is threatening health and drinking water.  If AES does not remedy the violations, CDA intends to file suit after 90 days. 
 
For years, Ruth Santiago has been working to elevate the voices of Guayama and Salinas residents, meeting with EPA and Puerto Rican authorities to sound the alarm on the widespread dumping. The EPA has known about this dangerous dumping for at least three years, but it has let the practice continue unabated. 
 
In the absence of local regulation, the public must rely on citizen suits or hope for a federal rule that prohibits such dumping. However, a Senate bill threatens to ensure that communities in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in our 50 states will remain unprotected from toxic coal ash and the schemes industry concocts to avoid the cost of safe disposal. Unfortunately, Senate Bill 3512, which passed the House last week in the form of H.R. 3409, is expressly not intended to protect communities from dangerous fill projects like the dozens of sites spawned from AES’ toxic waste. 

 

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