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December 1, 2016: This post has been updated with a response from AES Corporation. The company’s statement is at the end of the story.

Last week during the Thanksgiving Day holiday, #Peñuelas started to appear on the social news feeds of online Puerto Ricans. The hashtag was referring to the news of protests against the transporting of coal ash by the AES Corporation to a landfill in the southern municipality of Peñuelas, Puerto Rico. The protests have led to more than 60 arrests, support from politicians, another protest in San Juan and a call for more protests to continue this week.

A Facebook Live video from last Wednesday by Primera Hora showed confrontations between protesters and police, as well as arrests.

Hashtags such as #NoALasCenizas (No to the Ashes) and #PuertoRicoNoEsUnCenicero (Puerto Rico Is Not an Ashtray)  have also started to get some attention on the island.

On Tuesday, Latino USA contacted protest organizers in Peñuelas to ask why they were protesting AES. Here is what they told us:

Julio Ricardo Varela: Who are you and what is your role?
Organizers: We are various community and environmental groups in Puerto Rico, such as Comité Diálogo Ambiental, Inc.; Frente Afirmación del Sureste; Alianza Comunitaria Ambiental del Sureste (ACASE) and Comité Pro Salud, Desarrollo y Ambiente de Tallaboa, Inc.  The groups are representing their respective communities that have been adversely impacted by AES coal ash contamination.

JRV: What are you protesting exactly?
ORGS: Coal ash contamination, including fugitive dust and other significant negative impacts of coal combustion by AES , such as water contamination, as evidenced by EPA fines.

JRV: Who has supported the protest?
ORGS: Puerto Rico’s civil society, including environmental, political and religious groups.

JRV: What has gone on in the last week?
ORGS: The arrests last week have spiked massive protests and greater interest on the issue of coal ash contamination.

JRV: What are your critics saying about the protest?
ORGS: AES and the landfill are alleging the coal ash isn’t harmful and that people should not be concerned.

JRV: What is the ultimate goal of your protest?
ORGS: Prevent coal ash and coal combustion contamination.

JRV: Has AES responded at all to the protest? If so, what have they said? If not, do you expect them to respond?
ORGS: AES denies any adverse effects of its coal combustion residuals and contamination. AES has started a media campaign against the communities’ protests, including large media buys of full page advertisements in newspapers and commercials. They are contracting lawyers and other personnel, attempting to pit the truck drivers against the community members.

JRV: How is this protest different from previous ones? Is it different?
ORGS: The issue has become much more visible to the general public. There is broad-based support with many different sectors coming together to defend public health and the environment.

JRV: Why should people care about this protest?
ORGS: There have been multiple cases of coal ash and coal combustion contamination, including the Dominican Republic cases that AES settled in 2007 and 2016.

JRV: Where will it go next?
ORGS: It is expected that the government will respond to requests that the AES coal ash be handled as initially planned—exported from Puerto Rico because there is no beneficial use for it. And disposed of in a way that will not have any adverse impacts on other communities or countries.

***

On December 1,  AES director of investor relations Vincent Sipowicz emailed the following to Latino USA:

The use and disposal of CCRs [Coal Combustion Residuals] in lined, state of the art sanitary landfills is lawful, fully protective of the public, and authorized and supported by the regulatory agencies. 

AES-PR provides a critical service to Puerto Rico. AES-PR produces over 15% of the electricity used on the island every day. It is a reliable and the lowest cost source of energy for the citizens of Puerto Rico who are facing an extremely difficult economy.

Using or disposing of CCRs in a lined, secure landfill would be fully protective of the public. AES-PR supports the lawful use or disposal of CCRs in state of the art, lined sanitary landfills permitted by Puerto Rico EQB [Environmental Quality Board] to receive CCRs. 

These are state of the art, engineered disposal units that have been constructed in compliance with federal and state law to secure material placed there.

Specifically, each of the landfills has:  (i) an engineered, composite liner with an impermeable base; (ii) a system that collects and removes leachate generated in the landfill; (iii) monitoring wells located around the landfill perimeter; and (iv) a host of other measures, such as daily cover over material placed in the landfill, a storm-water management system to control against run-off, and best management practices, including sprinklers and water trucks, to suppress dust from landfill operations.

Expert federal and state regulators support placing CCRs in lined landfills.  The expert regulatory agencies –both the US EPA and the Puerto Rico EQB– authorize and support the use or disposal of CCRs in lined, sanitary landfills in Puerto Rico.

Use and disposal of CCRs has been authorized in the United States for decades.

After a lengthy public process that considered extensive data on CCRs, EPA issued a final rule in 2015 that expressly reconfirms the authorization of use or disposal of CCRs in sanitary landfills exactly like those permitted to receive CCRs from AES-PR is protective of the public.

EPA’s Regional Administrator for EPA Region 2, the EPA region covering Puerto Rico, has specifically stated her support for the disposal of CCRs on the island of Puerto Rico in lined sanitary landfills. 

As the Regional Administrator stated in an August 14, 2014 letter to the Puerto Rico EQB and Electric Power Authority:  “EPA believes that such a prohibition” on disposal of CCRs in Puerto Rico “is not necessary. An appropriate disposal option needs to be available for the material,” which includes disposal of AES Puerto Rico’s CCRs “in a composite, lined permitted landfill” that meets RCRA requirements. 

After its own extensive review, consistent with EPA’s approach, Puerto Rico EQB has expressly approved the disposal and use of CCRs in three lined, permitted sanitary landfills –two in Peñuelas and one in Humacao– that meet federal and Commonwealth requirements. 

Disposal of CCRs in landfills is not unique to Puerto Rico.  This situation must be put in context.  According to EPA, about 110 million tons of CCRs is produced in the United States every year, and over half of that material is disposed of in landfills or surface impoundments across the country.  One of the purposes behind EPA’s 2015 rule was to ensure CCRs are used properly or secured in landfills that meet current rules.  That is precisely what AES-PR is trying to do. 

The protestors are acting illegally.  We have a system of laws that govern behavior—and whether CCRs may be placed in landfills has been decided by federal and Commonwealth law.  Here, the actions of the protestors to continue to cause a public disturbance by blocking the entrance to the landfill in Peñuelas has been considered and explicitly enjoined by a Puerto Rico judge. 

***

Sipowicz also addressed the AES case from the Dominican Republic, which was the subject of a 2016 story from Puerto Rico’s Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (Center for Investigative Journalism) and was also referenced by protest organizers. According to that story, residents were exposed to coal ash and reported health problems.

“The facts and circumstances are different between these two situations [the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico], but it’s the same material, and people have made many claims,” Sipowicz said via phone. “But at the end of the day, from all the studies that have been done, the material just isn’t toxic. In the Dominican Republic, in that specific case, we did settle because in that case, the third-party contractor that was being used to dispose of the CCRs, basically, they did a bad job. We did settle for the improper disposal. Basically, we hired someone to do a job to dispose of the ash. They didn’t do it. But they were a fly-by-night operation. AES is not a fly-by-night operation. In Puerto Rico, the third party contractor would be the truckers. They’re simply driving the coal ash from the plant to the landfill, as per the law. In the Dominican Republic, there was a bad contractor who didn’t do the job that they were contracted to do, and that’s what the issue was there.”