Health

House Members Argue for Puerto Rico Coal Plant Shutdown

WASHINGTON — A coal-powered electricity plant in Puerto Rico that is releasing toxic coal ash should be shut down immediately because it is harming patients’ health, several House members said.

“Whether through production or storage, there is no good outcome related to coal ash,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), who is originally from the Dominican Republic, which also has a similar plant.

“It leeches into the water and soil and contaminates part of the water, flora, and fauna. The health impacts we have seen from coal ash in pregnant women and children born in and around coal ash storage … has literally harmed a generation of Dominican-born children with birth defects and conditions that are fatal. I hope that this can be a lesson that we can learn and act on to address,” he said.

“When AES [Corporation] opened Puerto Rico’s only coal power plant in 2002, there were about 100 cases of cancer per year in the nearby city of Guayama,” said Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which held a hearing on the coal ash issue.

“Within a year, cases rose 50%. Today, roughly one out of every 10 people in Guayama has been diagnosed with cancer. One out of every four has cardiovascular disease. One out of every three has respiratory disease. In short, the coal plant is killing the people of Guayama, and the cause appears to be coal ash — a coal byproduct that looks like fine-grain sand and contains toxic chemicals like arsenic, chromium, and molybdenum,” Porter said.


“The coal plant is killing the people of Guayama, [Puerto Rico], and the cause appears to be coal ash,” said Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) (Photo courtesy House Natural Resources Committee livestream)

The coal-powered plant was opened in 2002. “When the plant was built, operators said the ash could be mixed with water and sold as fill for construction projects,” she continued. “Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was more ash than there was a commercial market. So, AES has to dispose of the dust in landfills, but the options are limited.”

After unsuccessful attempts to dump the ash in the Dominican Republic and in Florida, “the only place willing to accept AES’s coal ash is a site in Chesser Island, Georgia, and that site has led to entirely new problems — just 3 months ago a barge carrying ash to Georgia, ran aground off the coast of Florida, leaching 9,000 tons of waste into the ocean,” Porter said.

Meanwhile, a toxic ash pile sits outside the plant, and nearby residents “drink contaminated water, breathe contaminated air, and suffer from rare diseases,” she said. “The only way to address these problems is to close the plant.”

However, although the plant owners are willing to close the plant, they can’t do it without approval from Luma, the private company that operates the power grid. A Luma representative was originally scheduled to testify at the hearing, but the company backed out at the last minute, angering Porter and several other committee members.

Porter also disputed arguments previously made by Luma and by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) that the plant is inexpensive and is needed to maintain a base of generating capacity. “Evidence suggests that neither of those assertions is correct,” she said.

Internist Gerson Jimenez, MD, who works in Guayama, also testified at the hearing. “A study published in September 2015 by Duke University [in Environmental Science & Technology] … found that the emissions activity from coal ash was five to 10 times more intense than that emitted from coal before burning,” Jimenez said.

“Medical doctors have long noted that exposure to radiation can induce formation of various types of cancer and congenital deformities. Doctors who work in the southeast area of Puerto Rico have noticed that since AES Corporation began operating in Guayama, there has been a significant increase in diseases of the respiratory tract and urinary tract, as well as a significant increase in the diagnosis of various types of cancer.”

Representing PREPA was David Owens, vice chairman of the board of directors. He said that the company’s plan to increase its focus on “clean” energy sources requires the coal plant to be retired in 2027. “That plan also contemplates that we have a very aggressive effort to move into renewable technologies,” Owens added.

That did not sit well with Rep. Jesus “Chuy” García (D-Ill.): “This would be unacceptable anywhere else, so why do we allow it to happen in Puerto Rico?” he said. “We don’t have to wait until 2027 … The solution is within reach, starting with closing the plant down. We can and we should move towards renewable energy.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) noted that toxic landfills were often located near communities of color. “The Chesser Island Landfill in Folkston, Georgia is the only place that is still accepting coal ash. Is that correct?” she asked Ruth Santiago, an environmental law attorney in Salinas, Puerto Rico.

“Yes,” Santiago said, noting that the community near that landfill has a population that is 53% people of color, including Blacks, Puerto Ricans, and Latinos.

Alex Epstein, founder and president of the Center for Industrial Progress, a consulting firm with coal industry clients, was the lone witness in favor of the plant’s continued operation.

“The one thing that will most help the people of Puerto Rico lift themselves out of crushing poverty is the thing many of you believe should be eliminated, and that’s low-cost reliable fossil fuel energy,” he said.

Noting that the average annual income in Puerto Rico is $13,000 and that energy costs are up to three times higher than in the rest of the U.S., Epstein added, “Does it strike you as fair that someone earning $13,000 per year should be paying three times what you and I pay for the energy that powers our homes? I don’t think that’s fair.”

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    Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow

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