Activists demand action on Senate bill banning coal-fired energy

By John McPhaul

Community and environmental activists on Monday demanded urgent action from the Senate Committee on Strategic Projects and Energy, which has before it a bill that would “alleviate the health and environmental crisis suffered by various communities near the company’s AES coal-fired plant” in Guayama.

Senate Bill (SB) 131 orders the elimination of coal-burning by Feb. 1, 2022 and would lead to the closure of the AES coal plant, a company that since 2002 has generated tons of waste and coal ash that pollute communities near the plant and other towns on the island, the activists charged.

Guayama communities have for almost two decades suffered the impact of the coal plant’s operations, and epidemiological studies confirm that they suffer from a higher prevalence of respiratory, skin and cardiovascular diseases, as well as miscarriages, compared to other regions such as Fajardo.

Noriann Meléndez Vélez, a Guayama resident and spokesperson for the Cuatro Costas organization, said ending the burning of coal on the island is a matter of urgency.

“While the future of energy in the country is being discussed, we are day by day suffering pollution from the burning of coal, dealing with ash, with respiratory diseases, with our contaminated bodies of water, with levels of arsenic in our soil,” she said in a written statement. “This has to stop now. We suffer disproportionately from the negligence of AES and from the country’s politicians, who look the other way.”

Yanina Moreno Febre, spokesperson for the Camp Against Coal Ash in Peñuelas, once again called on citizens and organizations to be in solidarity and demand action from politicians.

“It is not enough for bills to be filed, if later the [legislative] committees do not address the issues and do not go to the place to hear first-hand the suffering of the communities,” she said. “We demand public hearings now.”

Moreno Febre added that such a bill requires that the most affected sector be approached, since only then can the problem be understood in order to issue a recommendation and a responsible vote.

“It is easy to legislate in marble buildings while the people suffer and their representatives ignore them and turn their backs on them,” she said. “At least one of the public hearings must be in Guayama, where the most affected people are.”

Víctor Alvarado Guzmán, spokesman for the Salinas Environmental Dialogue Committee, agreed on the need to hold public hearings on the bill.

“The bill remains under evaluation by the Senate Committee on Strategic Projects and Energy, chaired by Sen. Javier Aponte Dalmau. [He said] public hearings will be held, but time is running out and it is urgent for the communities affected by the burning of coal to discuss the bill and have it approved,” Alvarado Guzmán said. “This is an environmental justice issue. We must end the burning of coal and close the plant [and the surrounding] area to remove all the toxic ash and start cleaning the area.”

Hernaliz Vázquez Torres, representing the Sierra Club of Puerto Rico, concurred that the matter is an urgent one.

“All of Puerto Rico is already suffering the impact of climate change and the burning of coal will make the situation worse,” she said. “I reiterate the need that other citizen groups have expressed for the urgency of a clear and forceful policy committed to renewable energy and independence from fossil fuels. For us and our communities, it is an issue of environmental and climate justice. The country, the planet and people are losing their lives over this.”

SB 131, which eliminates dependence on coal-based power generation in Puerto Rico, is authored by Sen. María de Lourdes Santiago Negrón of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, and has the endorsement as co-authors of independent Sen. José Vargas Vidot, and Sens. Ana Irma Rivera Lassén and Rafael Bernabe Riefkohl, both from the Citizens Victory Movement.

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