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EPA promises action on Puerto Rico coal ash, but residents are tired of waiting



Víctor Alvarado Guzmán was tired of waiting for environmental regulators to do their job.

The local activist shared the concerns of residents in Guayama, Puerto Rico, that toxic coal ash from a nearby power plant was seeping underground and contaminating drinking water.

After calling on the U.S. EPA and Puerto Rican government to act, he and an environmental chemist, Dr. Osvaldo Rosario, decided to take matters into their own hands. 

With help from other community leaders, they mapped out sites where they suspected coal ash had been dumped and took samples of the tap water in nearby homes. They conducted two rounds of testing in the same homes in March and August of 2021, Rosario said. 

The results, they say, support the community’s suspicions about contamination and helped persuade the Environmental Protection Agency in November to announce $100,000 in federal funding for EPA staff members to test drinking water and install air monitors near coal ash disposal sites in Puerto Rico.

“The government agencies are the ones who should be checking if the water is getting polluted, if the quality of the air is adequate for the residents of the area,” Rosario said. “It’s immoral to know that this is happening and not want to document it because it’s politicized.”

Residents of Guayama and nearby Salinas were glad the EPA is supporting more testing, but many remain cynical about a colonial government that has allowed a U.S.-based energy company to contaminate the region’s air, soil and water with toxic ash and other pollutants for decades. 

EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited Guayama last summer and promised to prioritize addressing an environmental injustice that helped inspire the agency’s 2015 coal ash rules. Activists presented EPA officials with their research and called on the agency to conduct its own testing and use its regulatory power to force the plant’s operator, Applied Energy Services, or AES, to clean up its act, Rosario said.

The EPA last summer also issued a notice of potential violations to AES for its alleged failure to provide a complete and accurate report of groundwater monitoring results as required by the coal ash rule, and it issued a notice of violation regarding AES’ air emissions under the Clean Air Act.

Meanwhile, advocates bemoan the fact that the 2015 rules now being enforced by the EPA don’t cover ash in ponds closed before the rules took effect or at countless sites nationwide — including in Puerto Rico — where ash was used to build roads and berms or simply dumped on land. 

Many residents in Guayama and Salinas live with chronic illnesses they believe are linked to constant exposure to toxic ash. A University of Puerto Rico study of public health data from 2016 to 2018 found that rates of chronic illnesses like asthma and respiratory issues were increasing significantly. The cancer rate more than doubled. 

“It’s very difficult to see people, close friends, with cancer and it just continues and it never stops,” said Alvarado Guzmán, who is president of a local environmental group called Comité Diálogo Ambiental. “That is why everyone is fighting against AES and this issue with the ash has become something personal — because it is personal.”

Materials are deposited in a temporary storage pile at the AES plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico. Credit: Kelli Duncan

Taking matters into their own hands

AES opened its Guayama power plant in 2002 and began a 25-year contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority — a governmental entity — to generate electricity for much of the island until 2027. 

The company has been poisoning residents in Guayama, Salinas and other communities on the southern coast ever since, through coal ash and air emissions, said Salinas-based activist and environmental attorney Ruth Santiago. 

A spokesperson for AES initially responded to requests for an interview made over the phone and via email, but ultimately declined to comment. 

One of the reasons the EPA agreed to conduct groundwater sampling at suspected “legacy” coal ash sites, rather than just sampling around the perimeter of the power plant, is to determine whether “contaminants similar to those associated with AES’ [coal ash]” are present in the groundwater used to supply homes, according to the EPA’s statement. 

Rosario said the samples he collected showed exactly that. Two rounds of testing were conducted — first by Duke University and, subsequently, by the College of Chemists. Rosario and Alvarado Guzmán tried to partner with Puerto Rico’s water authority to gain access to public wells located down-gradient from coal ash deposits, but the government “blocked every step that we made,” Rosario said.

Now, as EPA staff come in to do their own testing, the local water authority will not be able to deny them access to the wells, Rosario said. 

Before Rosario’s research, the only data on coal ash contamination in the area was coming from AES’ own testing of wells, which does not follow best practices outlined in the EPA’s Leaching Environmental Assessment Framework, Rosario said. The company is required to report its testing to the EPA as it pertains to ash ponds subject to the 2015 rules. 

The EPA is aware that AES’ pollution levels are actually higher and more dangerous than can be seen with the company’s testing method, Rosario said. He noted that, back in 2012, the EPA commissioned Vanderbilt University researchers to do proper testing of the AES site following the framework standards.

Even still, on-site testing conducted by AES shows that toxic substances found in coal ash — chemicals like selenium, lithium and arsenic — have contaminated the groundwater at the Guayama site, according to the company’s 2021 groundwater monitoring report. In October 2021, the level of arsenic in the groundwater was more than twice the federal standard for drinking water. 

Remediating this contaminated groundwater will be a “long-term process,” but data reviewed by the EPA shows that the contamination does not extend beyond the limits of the coal plant site, the EPA spokesperson said. 

When this kind of contamination is detected, the 2015 rules on coal ash mandate that companies “​​understand and define the full nature and extent of the contamination,” Earthjustice attorney Mychal Ozaeta said. To do this, AES has nine temporary monitoring wells, installed alongside their permanent monitoring wells to assess the extent of groundwater contamination on the site. The data from these wells have not been included in the company’s annual groundwater monitoring reports since they were installed in 2019. 

The groundwater contamination is attributed to a large pile or “staging area” where AES stores coal ash before transporting it off the island as required by laws passed by the Puerto Rican government in 2017 and 2019. Before these laws took effect, the pile stood about 12 stories high, Santiago said. 

The pile of toxic ash is considerably smaller now that it is used for temporary storage, but still sits — uncovered through the wind and rain — above the South Coast Aquifer that supplies water to many communities in the area. 

“The best solution, in the long run, for protecting the people and the environment is that these ashes have to be removed,” Rosario said. 

AES’ plan to remediate groundwater contamination on its Guayama site centers on installing a synthetic liner underneath the coal ash pile. The cost of the plan was estimated at roughly $6 million, while the cost of a total clean-up and management of the toxic coal ash is projected to be at least $150 million, according to AES documents and research conducted by Earthjustice. 

Permits for the liner were filed in 2020 with Puerto Rico’s Office of General Permitting and did not receive any oversight from the EPA nor the Puerto Rico Department of Environment and Natural Resources until they were in the final stages of approval, Ozaeta said. 

In April 2021, attorneys from Earthjustice filed an administrative complaint with the Office of General Permitting — on behalf of Comité Diálogo Ambiental and nine other local groups — highlighting the ways in which the plan allegedly violates the 2015 rules. 

The complaint alleges that the liner could lull residents and regulators into a false sense of security when it may not actually be sufficient to control contamination. An outside expert hired by Earthjustice to review AES’ design plans alleged that the geosynthetic clay material of the liner is vulnerable to deterioration, especially because the design allegedly does not leave adequate space between the bottom of the liner and the groundwater table. 

Permits for the liner’s construction were approved in January 2021, according to permitting documents. 

The Puerto Rico Office of General Permitting and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources did not respond to requests for comment when contacted by phone and email.

The EPA reviewed the findings in Earthjustice’s complaint and asked AES to provide additional information to ensure compliance across four main areas, according to a January 2022 EPA document summarizing communications with AES. 

The agency found that AES had failed to provide information on how it planned to decontaminate the area before installing the liner, nor had the company documented whether the liner material was suitable for containing coal ash. The EPA concurred with Earthjustice’s finding that AES had not provided enough groundwater elevation data and did not include a plan to properly contain “leachate,” a liquid contaminant generated when water percolates through coal ash. 

Construction of the liner was granted final approval by the Puerto Rican government a year and a half ago now, so the project may already be finished, Ozaeta said. Earthjustice attorneys have not been able to confirm whether AES halted construction following the January 2022 letter from the EPA identifying deficiencies in the plan. 

There is little that can be done to reverse course now, barring more aggressive intervention from the EPA, Ozaeta said. 

A road near Salinas, Puerto Rico, is caked with a thick layer of compacted coal ash deposited there before the EPA's 2015 rule on coal combustion residuals went into effect. The once frequently traveled road runs alongside a freshwater stream.
A road near Salinas, Puerto Rico, is caked with a thick layer of compacted coal ash deposited there before the EPA’s 2015 rule on coal combustion residuals went into effect. The once frequently traveled road runs alongside a freshwater stream. Credit: Kelli Duncan

The community demands action

Earthjustice and other advocates have for years been demanding the EPA regulate such “legacy” or “historic” ash. A 2018 federal court decision ordered the EPA to regulate legacy ash contained in ponds and the EPA is considering extending this to legacy ash stored in landfills or piles as well.

The contamination stemming from AES’ Guayama site has caught the attention of activists near and far. As recently as April 5, students at the University of Richmond in Virginia organized a march demanding the university terminate its contract with AES due to its actions in Puerto Rico. 

In March of last year, the leaders of 11 community organizations in Puerto Rico sent a letter to EPA officials demanding swifter and more decisive action. 

“As long as this polluting AES facility continues to operate in violation of federal law, people’s quality of life will continue to deteriorate,” local leaders said in the letter. 

Local residents like Daniel de Jesús of Coquí Solar don’t just want testing and environmental remediation; they want the closure of the coal plant and a transition to renewable energy.

“You know what motivates us?” de Jesús said in Spanish. “Our children, our grandchildren — the generation that comes after us. What are we going to leave for them? Destroyed land that is impossible to live on?”

Local activist José Cora, whose parents live on a hillside near the coal plant, has been fighting to close the plant for years. He has watched family members fall ill with conditions he says are connected to coal ash exposure. 

As he walks along a road in Salinas coated with coal ash deposited before the 2015 rule, he stops to talk and kicks at the toxic material, now compacted from the weight of many footsteps. He turns a bit of it loose with his shoe. His shirt reads, “Fuera AES” — “AES, get out.”

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