10 things you should know about Agremax and its use in Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN – While Puerto Rico demonstrators protest that coal ash is being deposited in the Peñuelas Valley Landfill (PVL), there are many questions surrounding Applied Energy Systems (AES), the company that generates energy by burning coal, and the recently approved Act 40 of 2017.
Caribbean Business interviewed representatives from the government, academia and AES about the main concerns surrounding the activity on the island.
What is being deposited at the PVL?
AES sends Agremax to the PVL. “Instead of selling [coal] ash for [waste] solidification at the landfills, I sell Agremax because it creates less concern among the people,” AES Puerto Rico President Manuel Mata told Caribbean Business.
“What’s being done in the landfill is mixing [Agremax] with non-hazardous liquid waste,” which complies with regulations, said Frances Segarra, the Environmental Quality Board’s (EQB) interim director of Quality and Control Assurance. Agremax deposits are “authorized both by the EPA [Environmental Protection agency] and the EQB, said Alfonso Orona, the chief legal adviserof the governor’s office, La Fortaleza.
What is Agremax?
AES’s president explained that coal combustion produces several byproducts, among them fly ash and bottom ash, light and heavy ashes, respectively. These are produced by all coal-based generators.
“Agremax is an aggregate resulting from a manufacturing process in which [ash] is mixed with water…there is a chemical reaction, the material is cured…and then you have…a stone which is a solid component, some 2 inches wide, which is what’s called Agremax,” Mata said.
Segarra said both light and heavy ashes are subject to controls. For example, light ash “goes through an air emissions control system that is supposed to remove countless contaminants that could be released in the atmosphere.” AES stores many of those coal ash derivatives, and it is not until they leave the plant that they become “waste.”
Although Segarra and Mata said AES created what is known as Agremax, known stateside as rock ash, Orona said it is term used in Latin America.
Is Agremax toxic? Is coal ash toxic?
The interim president of the EQB’s quality assurance division explained that “coal combustion residuals are excluded from the definition of hazardous solid waste” in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
The official also emphasized that AES presents to the EQB its monthly reports on light and heavy ashes and its production of Agremax, and “have consistently demonstrated that neither of them are a hazardous waste.”
Meanwhile, Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez told Caribbean Business that handling coal ash derivatives according to federal regulations “doesn’t endanger the community.” However, he acknowledged that “the mismanagement” of these wastes “is dangerous.”
Although he acknowledged that the coal ash derivatives may not be toxic and have beneficial uses, microbiologist Jesús Arvelo explained that the concern regarding the waste produced by AES is the company itself conducts the studies. “It isn’t known whether it emits a high [toxic] content because the company is the one that chooses the samples,” he said.
“I propose the government itself go in and select the ash, whether it’s [the Department of Environmental and] Natural Resources or the EQB, and take the sampling. If the government goes in and conducts an analysis, then you will know if the concentrations are at the supposed levels,” the scientist said.
However, the Health secretary noted that, “for the moment, we don’t have a laboratory to do aerial or ground tests. It is the EQB’s job. Neither the EPA nor the EQB have raised concerns.”
Mathy Stanislaus, the former assistant administrator at the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, said coal ash contains toxic elements such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic, which represent “significant health risks if leached into the water supply or mixed with the air we breathe.
What are Agremax and coal ash used for? What is considered beneficial use?
The government deems as “beneficial” the use of coal ash in industries such as construction. In that sense, the governor’s chief legal adviser said Agremax and coal ash could be used to fill landfills or to solidify industrial liquid waste produced by pharmaceuticals or manufacturing companies.
The president of AES explained that coal ash has been used in Puerto Rico to “manufacture cement as a foundation for sidewalks, for daily landfill cover” and to build blocks and gypsum board. Agremax is also used as road base.”
“Cement is not the same as block. Ash is not the same as Agremax. Flour is not the same as cake. Coal ash isn’t toxic, there isn’t a need to neutralize it,” Mata insisted.
What is prohibited under Act 40?
Act 40 of 2017, the act to prohibit coal ash deposits, stipulates that the deposit of light ash on the island is prohibited. However, it allows the “beneficial use” of the remaining derivatives, such as fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slags, and flue gas desulfurization (FGD) material (synthetic gypsum), with some controls.
“People should know that the ash the wind can blow away is not being deposited in Peñuelas or Humacao…. The product with beneficial commercial use can be,” Orona said.
Meanwhile, AES’s president argued that, although he disagrees with Act 40, “AES respects the law.” He warned that prohibiting the “beneficial use” of coal ash would affect the construction industry, because the latter would be unable to make cement.
What does AES do with the fly ash it produces?
The company stores fly ash until it can be transformed into Agremax because it is one of the aggregate’s components.
Why allow coal ash deposits in Puerto Rico after the AES acknowledged it settled a case for depositing that residue in the Dominican Republic?
Although the AES recognized in a legislative public hearing that it settled a $6 million lawsuit with the government of the Dominican Republic for depositing coal ash on the neighboring nation through a subcontracted company, representatives of the Puerto Rican government said they weren’t aware of the case.
As reported by the Center Investigative Journalism (CPI by its Spanish initials) and stateside media, AES Corp. and four subsidiaries, including AES Puerto Rico, reached a financial settlement in November 2009 for allegedly dumping thousands of tons of toxic coal ash in a beach, which caused abortions and deformities among children.
Specifically, there were 27,000 tons of coal ash with toxicity levels exceeding those allowed by international standards, from AES’s plant in Guayama, which were deposited in Arroyo Barril in the Dominican Republic.
“We don’t know specific data…. It is said they were mixed with hazardous solid waste and that is prohibited under local and federal regulation. That isn’t done here. I don’t know about that legal case, the conditions, the applicable environmental regulations in Santo Domingo,” Segarra assured.
For his part, Orona argued that “we don’t know under which conditions it was deposited in the Dominican Republic.”
What is AES’s position?
“What isn’t understood is how is it possible that in times when Puerto Rico needs economic development, an industry such as landfills is attacked; an industry that has invested $800 million in Puerto Rico in the past 15 years is being attacked and now they want to change the rules of the game,” the AES president said.
“During the hearings for Senate Bill 81 [now Act 40], the Health secretary was present, the EPA, the EQB, international analysts who say it is used in every part of the world, all of them agree that the product isn’t dangerous. Who should we believe? [them] or should we believe the specialists of the PIP [Puerto Rican Independence Party],” he added.
What is the government’s position?
In several press releases, the government has insisted that Agremax deposits in the PVL are allowed under Act 40 and accepted by the EPA, and the legislation only prohibits fly ash deposits due to the possible harm it may cause to lungs.
The government has stressed the damage it could cause to the island’s energy generation, and therefore economic development, if the AES stopped producing energy, because it currently produces 15 percent of Puerto Rico’s energy.
What is the stance of protesters against coal ash?
Many who oppose coal ash deposits in Peñuelas claim that, in effect, they are harmful, and they have witnessed its effects in neighboring communities. Thus, PIP lawmakers introduced legislation to completely prohibit coal ash deposits on the island.
In fact, AES’s original contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) said it allowed the plant’s installation, as long as it deposited its coal ash off-island. However, the contract was amended in 2015 because AES claimed that it was too costly to dispose of the waste elsewhere.