Toxic Ashtrays in Our Communities

09/22/2010 02:25 pm 14:25:27 | Updated May 25, 2011

Southeastern Puerto Rico features some of the most charming places on this most charming of islands. Behind its beaches, palm trees, white sand and abundant sunlight hours, however, lurks a threat to the health of almost 100,000 residents.

I am talking about the hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic coal ash that has been spread throughout this part of the island. This byproduct of coal combustion comes from a nearby plant owned by the multinational AEF.

Each year, the plant generates some 300,000 tons of coal ash, which contains highly toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, mercury, lead, barium, cadmium and others. And AEF makes the situation even worse by disposing of the ash in the worst possible way: by practically giving it away to unsuspecting local communities.

"AEF has absolutely no facilities to dispose of the ashes," says Ruth Santiago, legal advisor for the Comité Diálogo Ambiental and other community groups on the island. "All their ashes are distributed locally for construction sites."

The corporation "sells" its toxic ash at 19 cents per ton as filling material for roads and other types of construction.

"It's a gift to get rid of them," she adds. "The corporation provides transportation free of charge for the distribution of ashes. It's a subterfuge to meet the demands of the Board of Environmental Quality, which expects the ashes to be sold at market prices."

The 19 cents per ton is much less than the value of other filling materials.

During a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hearing, Santiago testified that at a site in Puerto Rico, "a virtual mountain of ashes was dumped" by AEF, in an incident similar to the one that took place in the Dominican Republic in 2003, when AEF had to pay several million dollars in fines and legal settlements.

But in Puerto Rico, there is no accountability for AEF, and the local communities, such as Arroyo, Guayama and Salinas, will end up paying the consequences.

"In some places, where the ash has been buried so deeply, it has reached the top of the water table," warns Santiago. "That means that ash is already in contact with the community's drinking water."

But even the residents who get their water from other sources are also exposed to the ash.

"Because of the predominant winds and the fact that the ash is left uncovered," Santiago explains, "there are places where veritable clouds of ash rise in the air and expose people to these poisons."

What is taking place in Southeastern Puerto Rico repeats itself hundreds of times in communities throughout the US. The country's 500 coal-fired plants each year generate 150 million tons of coal ash.

Since they are stored in ponds, many with practically no safety measures, these poisons work their way into ground water and waterways almost unimpeded. More than 100 waterways throughout the country have already been polluted, and the number keeps growing.

Studies by the National Academies of Sciences show that these waste sites are toxic; and according to the EPA, they can increase your cancer risk to as high as a staggering 1 in 50.

However, regardless of the great toxicity of these coal ashes, they are less regulated than regular household garbage. There are no federal standards, and more than two thirds of the states don't even require basic protections, like liners to prevent coal ash from seeping into water supplies.

Fortunately, the EPA has acknowledged the toxicity of coal ashes and is currently holding public hearings, including the one Santiago testified in, to determine whether the federal government should adopt regulations to protect our communities and ensure the safe disposal of this toxic waste.

To no one's surprise, Big Coal is fighting this EPA proposal tooth and nail. This response is especially outrageous if we consider that there already are alternatives, including in Puerto Rico, to the terrible consequences of our fossil fuels addiction.

"Southeastern Puerto Rico is ideal for solar energy generation because of the great many sun hours that region receives," says Santiago. "Also, the island's breezes open great opportunities for wind energy."

Enough is enough. Big Coal must stop using our communities as their own toxic ashtrays.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_sc.