Organizations Establish United Front Against Peñuelas Coal Ash Dump
SAN JUAN — Various organizations, politicians and community leaders who oppose the deposit of coal ash in a Peñuelas landfill announced Monday that they are launching a joint campaign against the ongoing operations of the landfill and the Applied Energy Systems (AES) coal combustion power plant in Guayama. The power plant, which generates a significant amount of ashes as a byproduct, has come under fire due to the health risks associated with their deposit.
The consortium, which spoke Monday at the Puerto Rico Bar Association, also revealed the contents of a manifesto that lays out the group’s positions, including its support of acts of civil disobedience such as the establishment of a an encampment to protest near the Peñuelas landfill and blocking access of trucks to the site. The document also calls on police to not arrest protesters, alleging they are defending a municipal order that prohibits depositing the coal ash within the municipality.
The manifesto also rejects the storage of any ashes resulting from coal combustion on the island, and urges the adoption of renewable energy sources. In the latter case, the group called on the elimination of the Integrated Resource Plan proposed by the fiscally embattled Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) because it includes a renewal of the AES contract well beyond the next decade. AES, which sells the electricity stemming from its coal combustion to Prepa, is one of the biggest power sources on the island, generating 454 megawatts.
Puerto Rico Independence Party (PIP) Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago; LGBTQ activist Pedro Julio Serrano; former Puerto Rico Working People’s Party gubernatorial candidate Rafael Bernabe; and Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo, president of the Irrigation & Electrical Workers Union, were on hand at the press conference, as were dozens of community and religious leaders from Peñuelas, Ponce, Salinas and elsewhere as well as several scientists, attorneys and physicians.
The group also supports the passage, without amendments, of Senate Bill 340, authored by Santiago and which would prohibit the storage of coal ash in Puerto Rico. When asked about the chances of the bill being passed during the second special session that is slated for later this month, Santiago said, “I wouldn’t bet on the good faith of any [legislator],” noting that the bill had languished for four years before being confirmed for the upcoming session. “We must keep the pressure on, otherwise SB 340 will be changed in a way that perverts its original purpose.”
Finally, the group called for a probe into the legality of amendments made to the contract between Prepa and AES in 2015, which opened the door for the energy company to deposit ashes in at least three landfills on the island.
Víctor Alvarado Guzmán, an environmental activist from Salinas, criticized that the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) would first classify the ash generated by coal combustion as material suitable for construction back in 2005. This allowed AES to repackage most of the ash as aggregate material, with which many construction projects were carried out, particularly in Salinas, Peñuelas and Guayama, Alvarado Guzmán said. “There are countless scientific studies showing how toxic these ashes are for public health, and there are several communities that are living over ash deposits and don’t even know it,” he added.
Meanwhile, Santiago noted that the company transported ashes it could not use as aggregate out of the island to deposit them in the Dominican Republic. “Once AES found it could no longer dump ashes [in the D.R.], the EQB changed the ash’s classification as waste so it could be dumped in Puerto Rico landfills,” she added.
Regarding the potentially enormous economic cost of shutting down the AES plant, particularly the money that would be contractually owed to the company, Santiago said the company had already violated the terms of its contract when it decided to dump ashes in local landfills, adding, “this is also the fault of the state, especially agencies like the EQB and the Environmental Protection Agency, which have served as nothing more than enablers.”