[News] Corporations Are Poisoning People in Puerto Rico With Coal Ash

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jun 10 14:47:34 EDT 2019


  Corporations Are Poisoning People in Puerto Rico With Coal Ash

Jack Aponte - June 10, 2019

Community organizers in Guayama, Puerto Rico, are agitating for the 
closure of a coal plant operated by the Virginia-based multinational 
corporation AES, citing research showing that local rates of cancer and 
asthma have increased substantially since the plant opened in 2002.

Now the fight has spread to the mainland United States: in early May, 
media reported that AES coal ash is now being shipped to a landfill in 
Osceola County, Florida. 
Even as AES continues to plague communities in Puerto Rico, it is now 
threatening to spread its poison to this Florida county with a large 
Puerto Rican community.

I first learned of the crisis of the /cenizas/, or ashes, in January, 
when I traveled to Puerto Rico with the Queer Trans Solidarity and 
Service Brigade <https://chinookfund.org/qt-sas-brigade/>, a group of 
U.S.-based activists on a mission to learn more about the political and 
day-to-day struggles in the archipelago and organize in solidarity with 
our comrades based in Puerto Rico. We went to Guayama, in the southeast 
of the main island, for a town forum organized by Comunidad Guayamesa 
Unidos por tu Salud 
on the community-wide health effects of the coal ash generated by the 
AES power plant in the town. Some of us from the U.S. had seen cable 
news air footage after Hurricane Maria of black sludge, rainwater mixed 
with thick coal ash from the plant, pouring from drainage pipes into the 
sea in the nearby town of Peñuelas, but we didn’t yet know the full 
extent of the coal ash catastrophe.

    An Uncontained Mountain of Coal Ash

At the town forum, Luis Bonilla, an environmental researcher from the 
University of Puerto Rico, cited two separate studies 
that show the clear negative effects on the health of the residents of 
Guayama since AES, a Virginia-based multinational corporation, opened 
the coal plant in 2002. The city has seen notable increases in rates of 
cancer, asthma, and other diseases 
that can be linked to the effects of burning coal and the resultant ash 
filling the air and contaminating the groundwater 

These findings are worrisomely similar to the effects of the Guayama 
coal ash that was for a time exported to the Dominican Republic for 
disposal, where it also severely poisoned communities there 
Gerson Jiménez, medical director at a local hospital who has practiced 
in Guayama since 1979, shared that in the years since the plant opened, 
he saw incidences of diseases linked to coal ash skyrocket as he’d never 
before seen in his many decades of practice in the area. Community 
organizers pleaded for people within and outside of Guayama to speak out 
and demand that the government force AES to stop its harm and make 
amends. The researchers and organizers concluded their forum with a 
final, urgent recommendation: to close the AES plant immediately.

Christy Morales and Aldwin Colón, two of the event’s organizers, live in 
the Miramar neighborhood of Guayama, about a mile away from the plant. 
Raising their two children there and seeing the effects on their health 
motivated them to join the efforts against AES. Colón was also diagnosed 
with kidney cancer in his mid-30s — a diagnosis that he thinks might not 
have happened if the coal plant had not moved to town — with his doctors 
telling him they were used to seeing the disease in people in their 60s 
and 70s. Colón and Morales were angry, and they channeled their anger 
and pain into their activism, getting people to pay attention to what 
was happening and take action to stop it.

The organizers offered to take us to see the plant up close. We followed 
as they expertly navigated their car down the neglected public road just 
outside the coal plant’s fence. Now we could see the mountains of coal 
ash towering stories high in the middle of the plant, shockingly 
uncontained. Each gust of wind blew a cloud of ash westward toward the 
road where we stood and past us into the residential neighborhoods of 
Guayama. Soon our eyes were watering, noses and sinuses reacting to the 
ash-filled air, an especially disturbing sensation given what we’d just 
learned about how this ash had been poisoning the people here for the 
past 17 years.

As Hurricane Maria approached in 2017, AES was supposed to cover up the 
ash with tarps to try to contain it. This strategy was flimsy at best: 
imagine how little plastic tarps can actually do to contain 120-foot 
mountains of ash during a Category 5 hurricane. But AES didn’t even use 
tarps. Maria struck with the mounds uncovered, further polluting the air 
and the waters around Guayama and sending ash from the dumps in Peñuelas 
pouring out of drainage pipes into the Caribbean Sea.

    The Toxic Coal Ash Heads to Florida

Organizers in Osceola County, Florida, are now also organizing against 
AES, working to halt shipments of the plant’s coal ash from Puerto Rico 
to a local landfill. The approval of the plan to ship the coal ash to 
Florida was tacked onto an Osceola County Commissioners’ meeting as a 
last-minute addendum item, making it impossible for residents to 
register their objections before the deal was finalized. Fred Hawkins, 
commissioner of the district where the J.E.D. landfill is located, has 
financial and donor connections to Waste Connections 
the owners of the landfill.

Community members in Osceola County are now organizing to halt the 
shipments of coal ash; nearly 44,000 tons have already arrived in 
with another 200,000 planned before the end of 2019. After the public 
outcry, the county government sent a letter to Waste Connections asking 
them to stop shipments immediately. The company responded that it would 
continue accepting the AES coal ash until October 1, 2019 
ending three months earlier than originally planned — but ultimately 
bringing the same amount of toxic waste into the area.

In both Guayama and Osceola County, a fair amount of the organizing 
around the coal ash issue is happening via Facebook. A group created for 
the community response in Osceola County includes information about the 
companies involved; news of the most recent developments; information on 
how to obtain signs, buttons and stickers; and encouragement to attend 
county commission meetings, protests and marches against the coal ash.

Some comments posted to the Osceloa County group’s page complain that 
“they” or “you,” meaning Puerto Ricans, should “clean up your own 
garbage” from the coal power consumed on the archipelago, with arguments 
that Florida shouldn’t be taking in “foreign” waste. Others repeatedly 
respond that AES is a U.S. company; that Puerto Rico is not currently a 
foreign nation; that the people of Puerto Rico have been protesting the 
coal plant for years and demanding renewable, clean energy sources; and 
that AES and other fossil-fuel profiteers spend massive amounts of money 
ensuring that their business continues unchecked.

These tensions between local residents are striking, though 
unfortunately not completely surprising, given the shifting demographics 
in central Florida. The Latinx population in Florida is rapidly growing. 
Puerto Ricans make up a large percentage of that Latinx population, 
especially after Hurricane Maria, when more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans 
moved to Florida 
after their homes, livelihoods and communities were destroyed by the storm.

When I first saw the Osceola news in the Guayama Facebook group, I 
commented about how many Puerto Ricans live in the area, including 
members of my own family. One poster responded that “this 
environmentally criminal corporation seems to have something personal 
against Puerto Ricans.”

The connection isn’t lost on others. One Puerto Rican now living in 
Osceola called the development a “double whammy.” 
And in a Sierra Club statement 
organizer Adriana Gonzales says, “The people of Puerto Rico didn’t fight 
for years to get this toxic pollution removed from our communities just 
so AES could turn around and force their poison on Puerto Ricans in 
Florida. Now AES wants to dump their pollution in the very place that 
people fled to for safety.”

    We Need Renewable Energy to End This Mess

No community that learns about the toxicity of coal ash wants it 
anywhere nearby. Promises about safe containment and disposal are broken 
again and again. And ash aside, there are, of course, the terrible, 
climate-changing effects of the greenhouse gases generated by burning 
Given all of this, coal and other fossil fuels are simply not viable 
options for powering any place, especially not a place like Puerto Rico, 
where the fuels and the waste produced by burning them need to be 
shipped both in and out, yielding electricity prices nearly twice the 
U.S. average 

The answer, in Puerto Rico and everywhere, is renewable energy. 
Community-owned-and-operated solar power 
made a tremendous difference in post-Maria Puerto Rico, with the 
potential for building microgrids to provide sustainable power that 
doesn’t depend on a fragile, centralized system. But this opportunity 
for far more affordable and environmentally friendly energy is being 
targeted by government policies, including a proposed tax to penalize 
those who disconnect from the centralized grid 
and rely on their own solar power instead. These policies are influenced 
by corporate lobbyists invested in everyone believing that Puerto Rico 
has no choice but to rely on imported, expensive, toxic and 
environment-destroying fossil fuels like coal.

Things are starting to shift, but not nearly quickly enough. In 2017, 
Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed a law banning the dumping of coal ash 
in Puerto Rican landfills, but making exceptions for supposedly safe 
construction materials made from the ash. This May, after previous 
failed lawsuits challenging the practice, the Puerto Rican Senate 
endorsed an amendment to the law 
to disallow those uses of coal ash as well.Earlier this year Rosselló 
signed another law to require that Puerto Rico be powered solely by 
renewable energy by 2050 
with coal power eliminated by 2028.

Nine years might seem like a short amount of time to AES and others 
profiting from their coal plant, but nine more years is an intolerably 
long time for the residents of Guayama who are being sickened by 
breathing and drinking the ash. And the 31 years until the promised full 
conversion to renewable energy is far too long for a people who suffered 
so greatly when their centralized, fossil-fuel-based power grid was 
decimated by Hurricane Maria, leaving only the few solar-powered 
locations across the archipelago as beacons of light and life-saving 

The AES Puerto Rico plant must be forced to stop burning coal /now/. AES 
must be forced to dispose of the toxic coal ash in the most responsible, 
least harmful ways available, at its own expense. The centralized Puerto 
Rican power grid must shift toward renewable energy immediately. But 
perhaps most importantly, the citizens of Puerto Rico should be 
assisted, not impeded, in developing their own solar microgrids and 
other locally controlled sources of renewable electricity that can 
endure in the face of hurricanes like Maria, which we know will come again.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 https://freedomarchives.org/
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