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AES Puerto Rico: 20 years of coal ash contamination

It’s time to put people above profits.

As if Puerto Rico isn’t already overburdened and under-resourced to address a host of environmental injustices, coal ash waste plagues the island and some of its poorest communities. Coal ash –the toxic waste left after utilities burn coal to produce electricity– has contaminated the island’s air, soil, and water, with the polluter refusing accountability.

Applied Energy Services (AES), a multinational company based in Arlington, Virginia, with assets exceeding $33 billion, opened its coal plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico, in 2002. Since the plant’s opening, AES-PR has woefully failed to protect Puerto Ricans from its toxic waste. A study conducted by the University of Puerto Rico’s Graduate School of Public Health between the years of 2016 and 2018, found that the rates of chronic diseases like cancer and respiratory illnesses had doubled.

AES-PR produces an average of 800 tons of coal ash per day, and for nearly two decades its ash was dumped into a mountainous pile of toxic waste that reached over 12 stories high. AES-PR left the ash uncovered, allowing it to blow into people’s homes and nearby schools, and vulnerable to hurricane-force winds and rain. To make matters worse, AES -PR located the coal ash pile above the South Coast Aquifer that serves as the source of drinking water for most of the island. Then hazardous pollutants like arsenic, radium and sulfate leached from the ash into groundwater.

Further, AES-PR sold coal ash as cheap “fill” material in place of soil at dozens of construction sites in southeastern Puerto Rico. At many of these sites, the toxic ash still lies unused and uncovered on the ground, and these piles pose dangers in residential areas, near parks, schools and even hospitals. For years, AES has refused to clean up its toxic piles and, as a result, environmental justice communities are left with polluted soil and no way to keep their families out of danger.

Although the federal government’s Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) rule regulates the disposal of coal ash, neither the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nor Puerto Rican authorities have adequately enforced the rule. The billion-dollar company has been let off the hook for its horrific coal ash mismanagement. As is often the case, those living closest to the plant are low-income and are also Afro-Puerto Rican.

Local activists and community members have been pleading to get the EPA to enforce the CCR rule and require cleanup of the coal ash piles on the island. After years of unanswered pleas to the federal government, the Puerto Rican legislature passed a law requiring AES-PR to remove its ash from the plant’s waste pile within six months, and it prohibits the storage of coal ash past 180 days.

AES-PR continues to evade the law by refusing to safely dispose of and clean up the ash. The mega corporation appears to care more about its profits than protecting people. After almost 20 years of contamination that’s made people sick and harmed the environment, AES-PR continues to dispose of its ash in the cheapest and least health protective ways. Its operating contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) does not end until 2027, which means these environmental justice communities will continue to be exposed and harmed by the plant’s toxic waste for at least another five years. AES-PR plans to move forward with an irresponsible construction project as a “remedy” to addressing the waste piles, which is like putting a band-aid on a gushing wound while the island’s groundwater continues to absorb toxins. AES-PR also has no plans to actively clean up the contaminated groundwater caused by decades of operation of its leaking ash pile. 

Earthjustice filed a formal complaint to revoke AES-PR’s permits for the construction project because it is not environmentally or health protective, and the plant has not established that it will stop the ash from polluting groundwater. Further, the alleged remedy will do nothing to contain the dust that blows off of the uncovered ash piles, which then becomes lodged in people’s lungs.

After sending EPA hundreds of documents, holding meetings alongside Puerto Rican communities and seeing no action from the agency, we were forced to turn to Congress for help. The U.S. House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing in June of 2021 on the harms caused by AES-PR and the need to close the plant before its contract expires in 2027. Both AES-PR and the operator of Puerto Rico’s electric grid, LUMA Energy, refused to testify. Several Members, including Reps. Velázquez (NY), Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Johnson (GA), Soto (FL), Tlaib (MI), and Cohen (TN) attended the hearing and powerfully spoke to the egregious actions taken by AES-PR, the environmental racism, and the sheer lack of care for the health of Puerto Ricans.

Just this week, the EPA finally addressed concerns about AES-PR’s “remediation plan” to construct a liner and use Monitored Natural Attenuation (MNA) to clean up groundwater pollution. MNA relies on naturally-occurring processes in the soil to reduce the amount of contaminants in groundwater. This practice, according to EPA, is highly ineffective for the coal ash contaminants that are poisoning the water on the site. It is widely known among the scientific community that MNA is almost always an inadequate method of cleanup for coal ash pollutants, and AES-PR must have known the same. EPA sent a letter of compliance to AES-PR detailing the lack of supporting data to show how its proposed cleanup will actually restore the groundwater and ensure pollutants like lithium and selenium will not continue to contaminate groundwater. EPA’s letter illuminates the various deficiencies in the plan and requires AES-PR to provide immediate responses.

We’re grateful to see the EPA publicly shedding light on AES-PR’s bogus cleanup plan and taking steps to ensure it is held accountable for cleaning up its toxic mess. The EPA exposed the dangerous dishonesty perpetuated by AES-PR in proposing a sham cleanup plan to save a few dollars at the expense of the health and environment of the residents of Guayama. Should AES-PR delay responding to the compliance letter, we hope that the agency will take bold action. We urge the EPA to hold AES-PR accountable for promptly executing a cleanup that meets the requirements of the federal CCR rule, protects the health of Puerto Ricans on the island, and fully cleans up and restores groundwater to its original condition.

Based in Washington, D.C., Christine is the legislative counsel for the Healthy Communities program.

Established in 1989, Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team works with champions in Congress to craft legislation that supports and extends our legal gains.