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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Island groups sue FEMA, Homeland Security over fossil-fuel-based grid rebuild

By The Star Staff

Conservation and community groups have sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency MA) and U.S. Department of Homeland Security over their plans to rebuild Puerto Rico’s centralized electrical grid back to the fossil fuel status quo instead of investing in the distributed renewable energy that Puerto Rico residents need, according to a statement.

“Fossil fuel power plants produce pollutants that poison our health and kill our neighbors, and other living beings that live nearby,” said Víctor Alvarado Guzmán of Comite Dialogo Ambiental. “The toxins produced by these facilities also harm the air, water, and land. That’s why the funds from agencies such as FEMA must be used toward renewable energy, especially rooftop solar.”

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia challenges FEMA’s failure to consider rooftop solar, storage and other forms of distributed renewable energy for projects intended to provide electricity to communities at risk from Puerto Rico’s hurricane-battered grid. It also says FEMA violated federal law by failing to consider the environmental harm from rebuilding and relocating Puerto Rico’s polluting fossil fuel infrastructure, including jeopardizing clean air and water, and endangered species.

Under the Stafford Act, infrastructure damaged in a disaster must be rebuilt to its original state using FEMA funds. However, another federal law, the National Environmental Policy Act, calls for agencies to take into account the environmental impact of their decisions.

“FEMA has no business committing billions of dollars to a dirty, unreliable, centralized fossil fuel-based grid that’s guaranteed to plunge families back into the dark the next time a climate-driven storm hits,” said Augusta Wilson, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Puerto Ricans have repeatedly demanded resilient rooftop solar and storage. They want to seize the opportunity to become a global example of what a safe, resilient energy system can look like. FEMA is recklessly ignoring Puerto Ricans and the climate emergency to enrich colonizing fossil fuel companies.”

“The direction promoted by FEMA and the state government to restore the outdated and polluting electrical infrastructure in Puerto Rico is contrary to the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change,” said Federico Cintrón Moscoso, program director of El Puente de Williamsburg’s Latino Climate Action Network in Puerto Rico. “It extends the life of fossil fuels and halts any progress toward renewable energy. It perpetuates inequality against environmental justice communities disproportionately impacted by climate change. There are other alternatives, and we demand a change of direction that promotes real solutions and climate justice.”

More than five years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, causing thousands of deaths and decimating the archipelago’s already fragile electricity grid, FEMA is finally planning to spend disaster funds on permanent repairs to the grid. But the agency wants to invest at least $12 billion in projects that lock islanders into decades of fossil-fuel dependence, the groups said. FEMA’s projects conflict with Puerto Rico’s 2019 law setting a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2050. As well as other local energy laws, they noted.

“Puerto Rico needs local solutions to adopt renewable energy options that do not compromise food security,” said Carlos Alfredo Vivoni of Frente Unido Pro-Defensa del Valle de Lajas. “The local government seems committed to sponsoring utility-scale photovoltaic projects on protected farmland or in ecologically sensitive land. That needs to change. FEMA needs to ensure that rooftop solutions, with photovoltaic panels and batteries, are evaluated as the most resilient options because utility-scale projects have proven to be unreliable after hurricanes. We can adopt resilient renewable energy options and protect farmland at the same time.”

Fossil fuel infrastructure in Puerto Rico is disproportionately located in low-wealth communities where people live with the pollution it creates, including sulfur dioxides, lead, cancer-causing chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde, and coal ash, the groups said.

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