Landfilled ash controversy is again the focus at an onsite hearing
Company responsible for the dumped fuel waste is a no-show in Humacao
By Richard Gutiérrez
The year 2023 has seen plenty of community controversies regarding environmental issues in Puerto Rico, and the eastern region is no exception.
The company Applied Energy Systems (AES) from Guayama has deposited coal ash in a landfill located on highway PR-923 in the Buena Vista neighborhood of Humacao. Due to adverse effects on air and water quality, and the health concerns the situation has brought to the community, residents of the area are not happy with the way EC Waste, the company that manages the landfill, has handled things. That is why Buena Vista community leaders and residents showed up at a House onsite hearing Tuesday led by Reps. Sol Higgins Cuadrado of the Popular Democratic Party, who chairs the House Health Committee, Mariana Nogales Molinelli of the Citizen’s Victory Movement and Luis Pérez Ortiz of the New Progressive Party. Officials from the island Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER), Vanesa del Moral, the Humacao regional director from the Lands Division, and attorney Samuel Acosta, an adviser, also participated in the hearing.
“We had another public hearing in Guayama regarding the ash topic,” Higgins Cuadrado told the STAR. “Back then, we visited Guayama under a different resolution, [but] even if this hearing is specifically about Humacao, we’re still talking about the same topic, the coal ash, with this resolution. The people of Humacao are searching specifically for the same thing as the people of Guayama -- complete verification of the waste management of this coal ash performed by the company EC Waste.”
Higgins Cuadrado said the main reason why the DNER was asked to take part in the hearing was so they could inform the community on whether or not EC Waste is doing the right thing by depositing the ash in the landfill. The lawmaker also told the STAR that “EC Waste has excused themselves from this public hearing.”
“They did not attend. However the House committee will hold another hearing where they will summon EC waste again,” she said. “Even though they are excused from this viewing, they are obligated to go to the House of Representatives and answer questions regarding this issue.”
“They said they couldn’t be present because some of the executives were on vacation,” Higgins Cuadrado added. “However, when we have the next public hearing they have to come. They are not getting off easily.”
The DNER officials noted throughout the hearing that the coal ash issue is nothing new. Ever since 2002, the AES coal-fired plant has been generating some 300,000 tons of coal waste in the form of ash every year. According to AES documents, between 2004 and 2011, more than two million tons of carbon ash were used in Puerto Rico in various municipal landfills, urbanizations, construction sites and commercial centers as fill material for roads and thereby were directly deposited into agricultural lands and aquifers. The DNER states that the ash is highly dangerous and toxic, something that has been reiterated and demonstrated through various studies and public reports.
More than a decade ago, in 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) commissioned a study by Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Researchers analyzed ash samples taken directly from the AES facility in Guayama, and their analysis confirmed the toxicity of the ash. In some cases the ash sample exceeded EPA’s recommended safety levels by thousands of times. For many years, the ash from the AES plant was deposited in Humacao landfills, where EC Waste used it as an alternative coverage material to solidify non-dangerous solid wastes.
Buena Vista is not the only neighborhood suffering the effects of the dumping of coal ash. Nearby communities such as Candelero, Miradero, Palacios Sol and Palacios del Mar, among others, have also been severely affected, according to previous reports, by the estimated hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic ash deposited in the landfill.
Many Humacao residents were present at the hearing, and speakers expressed their concerns regarding the effects of the ash.
“I’ve been a resident of this community ever since I was born; however, my family lineage has been here since 1884. Our property is just about north of EC Waste landfill,” Buena Vista resident María Márquez said. “We have presented our worries to you, the legislators, to the mayor, to the Department of Natural Resources and to the EC Waste landfill themselves about the public health situations we as a community are currently facing.”
“Toxic vapors, foul smells and ash deposits are out of control and are impacting our health and quality of life,” she added. “We had initially filed a complaint to authorities regarding the foul smells and EC Waste’s hours of operation, which are around dawn, which is a detriment to our tranquility. As a community we performed a census in November 2022, where we found multiple health conditions in our residents such as cancer, respiratory conditions, Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons. In January we found multiple skin conditions. Resolution 948 contemplates a health study for Buena Vista after the ash had been deposited in the landfill, it is important to include Palacios Del Sol and Palacios del Mar. We request that the study start with interviewing the people who are sick and family members of the deceased.”
Márquez also stated that regulatory agencies must also inspect the deposit, processing and stocking of methane gas.
Residents say the ash is not only affecting their health but also their food supply.
“The environmental deterioration of the past 10 years has been evident. It has caused arable lands to stop producing food, and even when they do, the crops become sick, the trees become sick because of all the environmental damage, all citrus fruits have vanished because trees have gotten sick,” local resident Sol Pagán said. “This has been damaging to our food supply and sustainability, and it represents a negative economic factor, because now we are forced to buy fruits and vegetables, which are essential to our diet.”
“I have seen the health of my community affected greatly, especially the youth with different types of cancers, a growing number of people with Alzheimer’s and plenty of skin conditions,” Pagán added. “I’ve lived here for a long time and I can assure you these conditions were not prevalent in our community before.”