Harm to Groundwater from the AES-PR Coal Plant
Puerto Rico’s one coal-burning power plant is located on the southeast coast of the archipelago. AES, a multinational corporation with assets exceeding $33 billion, opened its Guayama plant in 2002. Since the plant’s opening, AES-PR has failed to protect Puerto Ricans from the plant’s toxic waste. AES-PR leaves its enormous coal ash pile uncovered, which has allowed the ash to blow into homes and nearby schools and leaves it vulnerable to hurricane-force winds and rain. The AES-PR coal ash pile is sited above the South Coast Aquifer that serves as the source of drinking water for tens of thousands of people in southern Puerto Rico. Groundwater monitoring data published by AES-PR reveals levels of boron, lithium, molybdenum, selenium, and sulfate above federal health standards.[i]
Toxic Fugitive Dust from the AES-PR Coal Plant
Fugitive dust emissions from the waste pile have caused harm to the health of nearby residents. For over a decade, the waste pile dwarfed all other structures at the plant and still stands with no cover, totally exposed to the persistent Caribbean winds and tropical rainstorms.
Fugitive dust emissions can have grave consequences for the local community. In July 2016, the University of Puerto Rico, Graduate School of Public Health conducted an epidemiological study of communities downwind from the AES-PR plant. The study concluded that the Guayama community suffers higher incidence of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, asthma, hives, spontaneous abortions, bronchitis than a community whose air and environment are not impacted by the power plant.[ii]
AES-PR Is Not Cleaning Up Contaminated Groundwater as Mandated by the Federal Coal Ash Rule
Despite the legal requirement to do so, AES-PR has failed to implement a corrective action remedy that would adequately clean up the groundwater contamination at the Guayama plant and prevent further contamination. AES-PR’s plan consists of installing a synthetic liner under the waste pile in dangerous proximity to the water table and employing a “do nothing” approach known as Monitored Natural Attenuation (MNA) to watch rather than clean up the existing groundwater contamination. In January 2022, EPA issued a letter to AES-PR identifying deficiencies in the company’s cleanup plan and reiterating the EPA’s position that MNA is not an appropriate remedy.
In June 2022, EPA Region 2 issued a Notice of Potential Violations identifying several violations of the Coal Ash Rule’s groundwater monitoring and reporting requirements. Specifically, AES-PR failed to provide groundwater data from certain samples taken over the past five years that are critical to determining the full nature and extent of contamination from the waste pile.
AES-PR’s Violation of Clean Air Act Requirements
AES-PR repeatedly violated federal clean air standards. On July 25, 2022, EPA Region 2 issued a notice of violation under the Clean Air Act, finding that the Guayama plant exceeded emission limits for pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and mercury. According to the notice, AES-PR also violated the Puerto Rico Regulations for the Control of Atmospheric Pollution by exceeding the visible emissions and opacity limitations 86 times in 2021. The notice also identified several violations of the Clean Air Act’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards. AES-PR also violated the reporting provisions of the plant’s Prevention of Significant Deterioration permit by failing to submit quarterly reports of all excess emissions to EPA for 2017 through 2021.
Coal Ash Contamination in Puerto Rico from “Fill” Projects
From approximately 2004 to 2012, AES-PR distributed more than 2 million tons of coal ash as cheap fill material to dozens of sites in Puerto Rico, including housing, commercial developments, and road projects.[iii] The coal ash, called “Agremax” by AES-PR, is comprised of fly ash and bottom ash mixed with water. In 2012, Vanderbilt University completed a study on the leaching potential of Agremax for EPA, Region 2 and concluded that Agremax leaches particularly high concentrations of arsenic, boron, chloride, chromium, fluoride, lithium, and molybdenum.[iv]
AES-PR’s coal ash was often used to grade sites in flood-prone areas. In some cases, ash was placed in excess quantities and in areas clearly not safe for coal ash disposal.[v] The majority of sites are directly above the South Coast Aquifer and close to public supply water wells, wetlands, or the Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Puerto Rico’s rainy, hurricane-prone climate is incompatible with the use of coal ash for structural fill. The archipelago’s high population density and reliance on groundwater for drinking water increases the risk of human exposure to coal ash pollutants. At numerous sites, the toxic ash still lies unused and uncovered on the ground, and these piles pose dangers in residential areas, near parks, a school and even a hospital. At numerous sites, the coal ash was left uncovered or covered only with a thin layer of dirt, which quickly eroded. Fugitive dust from these uncovered piles and roads is common.
Environmental Justice and Coal Ash in Puerto Rico
The Guayama region, where many residents are Afro-Puerto Rican, has a high rate of poverty. According to the Toxic Release Inventory, this region suffers the greatest contamination of any region in Puerto Rico. The region also has among the highest unemployment and school dropout rates on the archipelago. The region experienced a sharp decrease in medical services with only one hospital currently in operation. AES-PR’s waste pile, offsite disposal of coal ash in the region, and continued reckless operation of the plant impose disproportionate public health risks to this environmental justice community.