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P.R. Health Secretary Dismisses Coal Ash’s Effects on Public Health

By on May 23, 2017

SAN JUAN — Puerto Rico Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez Mercado expressed full support on Tuesday of Applied Energy Services Corp. (AES) and its practice of disposing its energy plant’s coal ash in Guayama’s landfills.

According to Rodríguez Mercado, who is also a chemist, the Health Department’s collected epidemiological and health registry data from Puerto Rico’s southern region between 2014 and 2015, which indicates there is no evidence to suggest there has been an increase in reported cases of asthma, lung cancer, respiratory allergies or digestive cancers. However, he acknowledged the registry data is incomplete. Moreover, the Health official didn’t discard that mismanagement of the ash could lead to higher health risks.

Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez Mercado, left center, assured that carbon ash residues represent minimal health risks, if handled properly. (Agustín Criollo/CB)

“It would be prudent to conclude that citizens who reside in neighboring areas to companies that emit ash and those who reside near the landfills where they are deposited are potentially exposed to chemical products as a result of inhaling air that has been contaminated by the ingestion of locally grown agricultural products, and because of their direct contact with contaminated ground,” Rodríguez Mercado suggested.

“In Puerto Rico, the Health Department data doesn’t reflect these effects from an epidemiological standpoint,” he added.

The Health secretary made his declarations during public hearings by the Puerto Rico Senate Committee on Environmental Health & Natural Resources, in reference to Senate Bills 81, 123 and 128, which seek to address public complaints about coal ash deposits in local landfills.

Rodríguez Mercado concluded there is no way to scientifically prove a direct risk to public health, and assured that as these residue-producing companies continue to apply safe methods to use and deposit carbon-combustion residues, health risks should be minimal.

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The Health official explained that coal ash is considered a non-dangerous solid waste and, from a clinical standpoint, represents a greater health risk in the form of fugitive ashes. The secretary assured his department coincides with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in its 2007 study, in which the organization concluded that effective use of coal residues for any purpose represents minimal health risks.

Ponce Sen. Luis Berdiel, who is a member of the Environmental Health & Natural Resources Committee, stressed that AES has failed to be transparent regarding its operations in Puerto Rico.

“AES publicly denied, at all costs, that they exported ash residues to the Dominican Republic. It denied, at all costs, that it had been involved in a lawsuit, that it had settled a complaint. It denied that complaint was settled in Delaware, and that they paid more than $6 million. They always have denied this and, finally, before this committee, they had to accept that they did that, but through a company they hired,” Berdiel affirmed.

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Rodríguez Mercado indicated that the ash is primarily composed of dioxins, aluminum, barium, beryllium, chlorine, cobalt, manganese, nickel, vanadium, lead and zinc, among other chemical elements and compounds.

The Health secretary ceded that the very nature of this waste represents environmental challenges and risks to public health. However, he noted that the Environmental Quality Board has jurisdiction over the matter, not the Health Department.

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