This is part one of a three-part investigative series produced by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, in collaboration with La Perla del Sur newspaper, about the environmental and health threat posed by coal ash in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
By Omar Alfonso
Eight years have passed, but Amparo Andújar Maldonado does not forget. She lost her first child while she was approaching the fifth month of her pregnancy.
Nor does she erase from her mind giving birth to a disfigured fetus, with cranial malformation, something incomprehensible for a healthy 27-year-old woman getting quality prenatal care.
But Amparo was not alone. From 2005 to 2008, the rate of miscarriages and premature births rose suddenly in the Encantado neighborhood of Arroyo Barril, a working-class rural and coastal town, north of the Dominican Republic. An area rich in natural treasures such as the Bay of Samaná, global sanctuary for humpback whales.
Amaparo’s friend, Rosa María Andújar, was also one of the statistics. She gave birth to a child with exposed intestines and six fingers and toes. The newborn died not long after birth, in June 2008.
Months later, another neighbour, Maribel Mercedes, gave birth to Siamese twins who also died in a short time. Five babies were born with omphalocele – exposed intestines – between August and November of that year, in neighbouring districts Los Róbalos, La Pascuala and Gri-Gri. Only one of them survived.
When Andújar Maldonado was asked what explanation health authorities gave about her case and about the unusual number of similar cases in the region, her answer was simple: “None”.
Amaparo’s house is located less than half a kilometre from the dock, and during the pregnancy she would regularly go to the beach “to get some air”.
“I think it was because of that,” she said.
The “that” refers to the tons of coal ash that was abandoned in the Juan Pablo Duarte dock at Arroyo Barril for almost four years. Mounds of more than 27 thousand tons of the grayish residue arrived at the pier from the AES carbon plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico, and were unloaded, steps from the coast, in the open, and without a management plan, on October 2003.
Since 2002, the company AES has generated between 400 and 1,600 tons of this waste daily, while producing the electricity it sells to the Puerto Rico Power Authority (PREPA). Under a contract with the government, it bound itself to export the waste for which it did not find commercial use.
Neighbours and ex-employees of the Dominican port acknowledged that an undetermined amount of that ash material, identified by locals as “rock ash”, ended up in the sea. When this happened, it was common to encounter dead fish along the coast.
“The water that came down would kill the fish,” Miguel Ángel Paredes Jiménez was convinced. He was the security chief at the Arroyo Barril port in the year 2004.
Some of the ash, they said, was also dragged for months by the coastal breeze to nearby communities, agricultural land and to the mountains of the town.
A sample analysis conducted by the Institute of Chemistry at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo, released in April 2004, confirmed that the waste brought from Puerto Rico was loaded with heavy metals. Specifically, they identified amounts of beryllium, vanadium and cadmium “exceeding the levels of international standards”, and also high concentrations of arsenic.
The Technical University of Delft, in the Netherlands, describes beryllium as one of the “most toxic known” elements in the world since “it can be very harmful when inhaled by humans” and may “increase the chances of developing cancer and DNA damage.” In addition, it can accumulate in the air, soil and water.
By 2005, about 1,600 families lived in the village of Arroyo Barril and nearly 40 per cent of them had no running water at home, so they went to nearby rivers and springs for drinking water. Today, a minority continues the same practice.
The alert caused by the rise in miscarriages in those years was such that regional leaders of the Ministry of Health adopted an extraordinary measure.
“We asked the women of age to prevent pregnancy for a while, because there were many abortions,” recalled Dr. Rosa Domingo Maleno who, since 2004, has been Provincial Director of Health in the Samaná region, to which Arroyo Barril is assigned.
Domingo Maleno could not provide figures of registered miscarriages during those years.
“The land is contaminated”
Facing one of the gorges of the Encantado neighborhood, and passing the dirt road leading to Amparo’s home, lives Concepción García Bueno, a strong farmer who can no longer do his job.
Surrounded by neighbours, he explained that since the arrival of rock ash in the Arroyo Barril dock, fruit trees no longer produce. The plantains, orange, grapefruit, pigeon peas and avocado no longer grow in his orchard.
“Here in our territory you can ask around if anyone can bring you an orange or a grapefruit. It doesn’t exist; there are none. And that’s because of this epidemic,” he said referring to the mountains of ash.
“The leaves have dried and fallen. They are disappearing. The land here in our territory doesn’t produce them. The soil is affected, it’s polluted,” he said.
“Had you noticed a similar problem before?” he was asked.
“Never, never. (We had not had) any epidemics. Thereafter, it has been a disaster,” he said. “But we are already contaminated and there is no way out of this evil.”
Since the arrival of the ash, he added, the soil that for decades gave food to his family and neighbours has transformed. Now they are forced to buy legumes, fruits and vegetables from farmers or sellers from other areas.
How could the fields of Arroyo Barril be contaminated with ash waste if the mountains of waste were in the dock? García Bueno gave a quick and clear answer: through the sea breeze.
“My mother’s house is half a kilometre away from where they deposited that and they had to be cleaning all the time. It was like a powder, the one they use for babies,” he said.
But the ash was also spread another way.
As explained by Jose Eligio García Jiménez, a religious leader and driver of the Province of Samaná, a few months after the arrival of the coal ash, hundreds of people went to the dock at Arroyo Barril to take some home, after the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and port operators said the material could be used for construction and flooring.
García Jiménez said it was not unusual to see carpets of ash at the entrances and in courtyards of homes, even in the municipalities of Sánchez and El Limón, located more than 20 kilometres from the port.
“Many people came to load (the ashes) in trucks to throw in front of their yard because it was something that looked nice, like a white sand, something pretty. And that was the curse,” he said.
“Then all those people came in sick. All of them.”
“First, the children and then, adults” began to manifest bone pain, fever, swelling in the body and itching or hives, among other symptoms, he said. Unlike diseases such as dengue fever, common in tropical areas, the symptoms persisted and lasted for months.
“We were saying ‘but why does the whole family, in one house, have all these symptoms of illness and nobody knew what it was?’ Nobody. And it was ‘that’ killing us. The rock ash.”
María Andújar Mercedes, another neighbour of the dock, added that families who used the ash as construction material also used it to cover the floors of their kitchens because it is common in the area to have dirt floor kitchens separated from the houses.
Even the coconuts were affected
Among those who raised a voice of alarm was Eugenio Andújar Maldonado, the current president of the Neighbours United for Peace of Arroyo Barril.
Standing in front of the Nagua Samaná Highway, Andújar pointed at coconut palms and said they were the first indicator that something strange was happening.
“Many coconut trees were damaged, that is, they dried,” he recalled.
In Arroyo Barril, as in the rest of the Province of Samaná, economic activity is centered on tourism, fishing and agriculture. In the latter, the main agricultural product was the coconut, as confirmed by the Ministry of Agriculture of Samaná.
The community leader also noted that since the coal ash spill, local production of yams, cassava, plantain, grapefruit and avocado inexplicably dwindled “up to 70 per cent”.
Drought is a recent phenomenon and other sources of pollution that can damage soil do not exist near Arroyo Barril. As an example, he said the nearest landfill is located 15 kilometres from the town; the Cotuí gold processing plant is 200 kilometres away; and the nearest cement plant is situated in the Province of Santiago, “260 kilometres from here”.
In his own flesh
Dr. Eduardo Ortiz Mejías, then assigned to the Primary Care Unit of Arroyo Barril, also remembers precisely these incidents, some of which caught the public attention.
In fact, the doctor not only certified that the frequency of miscarriages and births of children with deformities was atypical in Arroyo Barril between 2005 and 2008, but recalled how he was surprised to learn of the loss of his firstborn in 2006.
His wife was eight weeks into her pregnancy. “On January 26, even though we took all the preventive measures, she lost the baby,” he said.
The doctor, now active in the Leopoldo Pou Hospital at Samaná Province, explained that this was the first and only time in their family histories that such a tragedy occurred.
He confessed that accepting and adjusting to it was difficult.
As a man of science, it was challenging to find an explanation for what happened. But he recognized that something was happening in Arroyo Barril and moved away from there in 2005.
“I come from a contaminated town, completely polluted, called San Pedro de Macoris, a province where there are many free trade zones and there is a very broad environmental impact. But when I am there, in San Pedro, I don’t see the diseases that I’ve seen there,” he said.
Among things he observed in Arroyo Barril were rashes, miscarriages, repeated abortions, premature births, malformations “and what was seen only in textbooks”: Siamese twins.
“We also had children who were born without the two extremities. This condition is called amelia,” he added.
However, the problem is complicated because, in his opinion, the incidence of these cases persists.
“We’ve had the bad luck that we do not know anymore when the pregnant women (in Arroyo Barril) will give birth. What is the cause? We do not know,” he said.
“They just say ‘it is God’s destiny’, ‘it had to happen’, but if a thorough investigation is done I think we can come down to the real reasons,” the doctor added.
The study would indicate whether Arroyo Barril has been contaminated by toxins, and the origin. In addition, it would shed light on the possible presence of heavy metals in the blood of residents and in water and agricultural lands of the municipality.
This request is supported by Dr. Nabal Ireon Báez Beevers, Area Manager of Health at the Province of Samaná, who said that the landing of the coal ash never should have happened, let alone in an area which is close to populated communities.
Exposure to toxic chemicals, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics has said, is a problem that threatens human reproduction “disproportionately among the poor.”
For example, in 2015 it concluded that “miscarriages, stillbirths, impaired fetal growth, congenital malformations, alteration or reduction of neural development and cognitive function” are some of the effects on reproductive health related to exposure to chemicals and air pollutants.
The group representing gynecologists and obstetricians from 125 countries also ruled that negligible exposures to heavy metals during the prenatal period may interfere with the development of a child, “triggering adverse health consequences that may manifest through the life expectancy”.
A thorough investigation on this topic could materialize soon in Arroyo Barril if the claims in a prolonged legal battle against AES Puerto Rico and its parent company, AES Corporation, are supported by the court, said Báez Beevers.
The civil lawsuit filed by lawyers representing about 20 residents of Samaná was presented in 2009 before the Superior Court of Delaware. The suit alleges that the 27 thousand tons of coal ash discharged in Arroyo Barril was toxic and sickened people in the area.
The Center for Investigative Journalism learned that last February 6, AES Corporation attorneys met at a hotel in Santo Domingo with the plaintiffs and their lawyers, and presented a proposal for settlement. This happened after the Center conducted on-site interviews related to this investigation.
The plaintiffs rejected the offer, so the case being heard before the presiding judge of the Superior Court of Delaware, Jan R. Jurden, continues.
Manuel Mata, chief executive of AES Puerto Rico, did not agree to be interviewed by the Center for Investigative Journalism.
The story repeats at the border
Another witness to what happened with the ashes is lawyer and current Deputy Attorney General of the Dominican Republic, Ramón Madera Arias.
But he didn’t become aware of the rock ash in Samaná. It was in the province of Montecristi, located on the northwestern tip of the Dominican Republic at the border with Haiti, where the company Trans-Dominican Development in 2003 unloaded 30,000 tons of the coal ash that was discarded by AES in Guayama, Puerto Rico.
As stated in the official permit issued by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of the country in 2003, the mountains of ash material brought to the port of Manzanillo would be used to expand its cargo area.
However, Madera Arias, then Attorney General for Environmental Defense, warned that the compacted ashes had been discharged less than 100 metres from the beach and the adjacent wetland was disappearing.
“Some mangroves were there. That was a very green area and it started to dry, to deteriorate, and to damage,” he explained. “And a dust polluting the air was flying around.”
In a previous conversation, journalist Arsenio Cruz from the El Caribe daily newspaper had notified Madera Arias that a coal ash cloud had flooded the town of Manzanillo and that “everyone is choking; they can’t take it.”
“People couldn’t lie down in their homes, because even the blankets, the bed, was filled with that dust. It had penetrated (the homes), it had flown with the breeze,” he recalled.
Madera Arias rushed to the scene, confirmed the facts and ordered the immediate end to activities associated with ash handling. He also banned the importation of the waste, as another shipment was on its way.
This, however, did not stop the wave of bad health which affected many of the 10,000 residents of the municipality, now known as Pepillo Salcedo.
“In Manzanillo, more than 90 per cent of the people had welts, itching, skin diseases,” he said. “If you talked to 100 people in the town, 80 or 90 would have the symptoms…but the same happened in Carbonera, which is two or three kilometres away,” he said.
The explanation offered by Madera Arias is that Carbonera receives the sea breeze directly from Manzanillo.
Another tragedy, the official regretted, was that “10 to 12 people who were healthy and young” were diagnosed with skin cancer and lung cancer. The victims were all known to Madera Arias given that he is a native of the province.
Tomorrow: They promised jobs…