This is part two 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
They went looking for Víctor Rodríguez Aguirre at his home in the Santa Ana sector of barrio Jobos Guayama.
He was a critical player. The young father resided in one of the most densely populated zones near the AES carbon plant and knew what it was like to live in poverty.
He became a local sports leader who strived to help his community move forward. He focused particularly on young students with no job prospects on the horizon.
His desire for progress and his influence in the neighborhood were key to convincing others to believe in the promise that AES would invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the construction of a power generating plant that would bring wages and prosperity to the region.
“They took us to Hartford, Connecticut, to see the AES facilities,” Rodríguez Aguirre recalled, sitting in a chair in the balcony of his home. “And what we saw there was very positive; it was in line with what we had been told would be established here in Puerto Rico,” he said.
But the enthusiasm didn’t last long. From Barranca and Pozuelo to Puente de Jobos and from Miramar to San Martin, and even in Los Mosquitos, disappointment spread quickly among neighbours, like the smoke left behind by the truckloads of ash.
“Even the smallest alleys were filled completely with the ashes. Then they covered it with white stone and other materials to hide it,” Rodríguez Aguirre said.
“That’s not what was promised. The ashes were not supposed to be left here in Puerto Rico. That’s the reason why everyone thought it would be positive, that it was worth it,” he said.
Between 2004 and 2011, over two million tons of ash discarded by the AES plant in Guayama were converted into filling for new construction projects and roads in the town, as well as in the cities of San Juan, Dorado, Toa Alta, Caguas, Juncos, Ponce, Santa Isabel, Coamo, Arroyo and Mayagüez. The ashes were also used for the construction of ponds, roads and bridges adjacent to streams, exposed to wind or rain, and were even abandoned in vacant lots in the southern region of Puerto Rico.
This all happened while the Puerto Rican government and federal agencies looked the other way.
When you dig soil, build a fence or plant a garden in the courtyard of a newly built home in some of the aforementioned municipalities, it is common to unearth thick layers of grey dust.
AES, the multinational corporation that has produced the ash since 2002 and bills nearly a million dollars daily to the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) for the sale of coal-based electricity, argues that the ash is not toxic waste and is safe for citizens and the environment.
Company executives maintain that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists the ashes as non-hazardous waste and indicates that it can be used as a filler in construction projects.
Nonetheless, four years ago that same federal agency ordered and paid for a chemical analysis that debunked this thesis, in response to complaints from environmental groups such as Diálogo Ambiental.
The research conducted exclusively with coal ash from the AES plant in Guayama concluded that this waste tends to release heavy metals in concentrations that exceed up to 9,000 times federal safety standards, upon contact with liquids and soil.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and ARCADIS laboratories in North Carolina also detected excessive levels of arsenic, boron, chloride and chromium in these metals, as well as harmful traces of lithium, molybdenum, selenium and thallium.
With these qualities and concentrations, EPA could classify AES waste – or any similar one – as a dangerous, toxic and carcinogenic substance. But it did not.
Neither the EPA nor its homonymous local agency, the Environmental Quality Board (EQB), reported these findings to the plant’s neighbours or to the communities impacted by the transportation and unloading of the material.
Instead, the EPA made some references to the report in its website and, to this day, the agency only provides the final study upon request.
There is strong evidence about the effects of high concentrations of heavy metals on human health and the environment.
For example, the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands, one of the most prestigious research centers in Europe, points out that the intake of inorganic arsenic can increase the chances of developing skin, lung, and liver cancer and lymphoma.
Very high exposure can also cause infertility in women and miscarriages, damage to the brain, even to the DNA.
On the other hand, thallium detected in the ashes in Guayama – in concentrations 14 to 31 times above the maximum allowed – can be absorbed by the body very effectively through skin, respiratory organs and the digestive tract, according to the Vanderbilt and ARCADIS and the Technical University of Delft studies.
One of the active ingredients in rat poison, thallium intake can cause nerve and congenital damage in children, and even death.
The chemical analysis commissioned by the EPA also found that the ash can have chromium concentration between 470 and 9,000 times above the acceptable threshold.
Previous studies, such as the one funded by the United States Department of Energy in 2006, have agreed that 97 per cent of the chromium released by coal ash is of the hexavalent type, a highly toxic compound.
Known for its reference in the film “Erin Brockovich”, hexavalent chromium causes cancer in animals, according to laboratory tests conducted by the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health between 2006 and 2008.
Due to its constitution, coal ash is water soluble so it is common for the substance to pollute aquifers, streams or rivers, and it can even be assimilated by plants, fish and humans, according to Chemistry PhD. Osvaldo Rosario López.
Rosario López, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, has a specialization in EPA Environmental Chemistry, worked for a decade as a consultant to the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and has spent 35 years as a researcher.
He warned that the main impact of Vanderbilt and ARCADIS findings is that wherever the ashes are taken, “they carry with them these toxins and carcinogens and thus they have the potential to do damage in the locality where you unload them and to all those exposed in the areas.”
They live on top the ashes
Photos and documents held by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism (CPIPR in Spanish) detail how this toxic waste ended up in at least 36 locations in Santa Isabel, Salinas and Guayama.
Among them are the developments Parque Gabriela II, Valles de Salinas, Marbella, Vistas de Salinas, Estancias de Dulces Sueños, Mar del Caribe and Villa Serena. The ash was also deposited in commercial spaces such as Arboleda Shopping Court, Porto Fino Plaza, Los Recreos Plaza and Arroyo Town Center.
A plot of land belonging to the Eta Sigma Alpha fraternity, near Punta Guilarte Beach, and close to three water wells, were also classified as being in the flood zone.
Some images confirm the widespread disposal of toxic material at the banks of the Saco and Guamaní rivers.
On the other hand, a source who asked not to be identified told the CPIPR that tons of ashes from AES were buried between 2004 and 2008 on public land of high agricultural value, typically used for planting vegetables, and managed by the Land Authority of Puerto Rico in Salinas. The material was mostly used as filling for roads and, in some cases, the greyish residue was not covered with any other material.
The communities have complained that neither the company nor government agencies have taken corrective action concerning the inappropriate disposal of this pollutant. AES executives, officials from the EPA, the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) and the Puerto Rico and federal departments of Justice have been advised of these complaints since September 2012, according to a Notice of Intent to Sue from the legal aid organization Public Justice.
Meanwhile, AES has continued to produce toxic coal ash at a rate of 400 to 1,600 tons per day, or about 300,000 tons per year, according to their own estimates. To help understand the magnitude of the company’s ash waste production, a car can weigh between one and two tons.
Given the weight of the ashes and the type of vehicles used, part of this waste ends up spread along the routes chosen to transport it from Guayama to landfills in Peñuelas and Humacao. These locations have received the waste without authorization or supervision of the Environmental Quality Board.
As recently as October 15, the EQB acknowledged in writing that during 2015, 350,000 tons in the Humacao landfill and another 7,000 tons of ash were illegally unloaded in the Peñuelas landfill.
These violations have not resulted in fines or cancellation of permits and contracts.
Coal ash is also radioactive
The question of why regulatory agencies do not comply with their own laws or stop the dangerous disposal of toxic material around the island, emerged again last year when another suspicion was confirmed.
Researchers at Duke University in North Carolina certified that coal ash also has radioactivity levels up to ten times higher than the coal, “due to the way the combustion process concentrates radioactive substances”, as published by the American Chemical Society magazine.
“Right now there is no standard or safe level of exposure to radioisotopes. Any exposure is unacceptable,” said Rosario Lopez.
The findings and conclusions of the scientific team from Duke match another analysis done in 2010 where ashes found in neighborhood Parque Gabriela in Salinas were evaluated. Test America Savannah laboratory certified not only toxic levels of arsenic, chromium, thallium, lead and molybdenum in that waste, but also excessive presence of alpha radiation.
The EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognize that when radioactive particles are inhaled, the risk of cancer increases significantly. These particles disperse easily when handled, transported and unloaded without control mechanisms.
According to the latest Cancer Registry of Puerto Rico Newsletter, the municipalities of Salinas, Coamo, Santa Isabel, Juana Díaz and Ponce recorded the highest incidence of all types of cancer between 2008 and 2012. Meanwhile, higher mortality was reported among people with cancer residing in Guayama, Salinas, Santa Isabel, Ponce, Guayanilla and Peñuelas.
“Does the EPA know about all this (the radioactivity)?” CPIPR asked Dr. Rosario Lopez.
“Oh! They know. They know very well and the coal company consultants also know it. They are also scientists,” he replied.
“And what is completely immoral is that, knowingly, the health and the quality of life of the people is being sacrificed for economic greed. That’s what it comes down to. Money.”
According to references from the Public Justice Organization, it would cost AES between $100 and $200 per ton to properly dispose of this waste, but the company has preferred not to take on that expense.
The time bomb is ready
Meanwhile, the pollutants from the ashes seep through the ground and the Southern Aquifer.
As warned by Dr. Rosario Lopez, in all the places where the coal ash was used as a filler, there is a threat of irreversible pollution with heavy metals. He believes it is “only a matter of time” before the toxic chemicals leak into water supplies like the Southern Aquifer, making them unusable.
His remarks are not alarmist. An internal memo of the EPA, obtained by the CPIPR, shows how the administrator of Region 2, Judith Enck, alerted the president of the Environmental Quality Board, Pedro Nieves Miranda, to this same issue on November 7, 2011. Enck was concerned and mentioned specific cases and lawsuits filed in the US regarding contamination of aquifers with toxic elements in coal ash.
This mention, however, is not the only one. EPA has copious evidence of the pollution of aquifers and wells “leached” by coal ash in the United States, in particular with hexavalent chromium.
For example, the federal agency found that the chromium present in an aquifer contaminated by an ash landfill in Ohio reached 1.68 parts per million, a figure that exceeds 84,000 times the amount allowed by federal regulations.
In more well-known cases in the United States – like in Town of Pines, Indiana and Chesapeake, Virginia – important drinking water supplies were contaminated with coal ash that had been used as construction filler, like in Puerto Rico. In 17 states, there are about 20 cases tested and documented by the EPA. At the same time, the company investigates hundreds of additional complaints.
Water extraction has been banned in places where chromium and other heavy metals contamination has been found.
According to Puerto Rico’s chief adviser on water issues for EPA, Carl Axel Soderberg Mayoral, the Southern Aquifer is an elaborate network of drinking water wells that runs between the municipalities of Guayama to Peñuelas.
At least 35 million gallons are extracted from it every day to serve around 140,000 people, and for residents and businesses in Salinas it is the only supply of drinking water.
Although Soderberg Mayoral said he was unaware of EPA studies in which the toxicity of coal ash is recognized, he described the current state of the aquifer as critical due to salinization, and acknowledged that another threat to this resource could be detrimental, not only for residents but also to commercial and industrial growth in the area.
“The Southern Aquifer is in a critical situation… and therefore deserves special protection,” he said.
He further argued that if consumption from this water resource was ever banned “there will be a serious social economic problem,” especially for the municipality of Salinas.
“Even if they look for money, where there’s none, in order to bring an alternate superficial supply, there would be extreme water rationing, permanently, having to bring in water through tanker trucks. There is nothing else to do,” he concluded.
“It’s not whether it’s going to happen or not, it’s a matter of when will it happen,” Dr. Rosario Lopez insisted.
Tomorrow: Puerto Rico and EPA agree to amend AES contract behind closed doors