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Coal ash raising concerns over health risks in Puerto Rico

Residents of Guayama, home to Puerto Rico’s only coal-burning power plant for 15 years, have been diagnosed with cancer, heart and respiratory diseases that they fear are related to coal ash exposure. Ivette Feliciano reports on the concerns of Puerto Ricans who say the situation grew worse after Hurricane Maria--and the national implications as President Donald Trump’s administration rolls back regulations on the disposal of coal ash.

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  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    The city of Guayama sits near Puerto Rico's southeast coast. Half its population of more than twenty thousand lives below the poverty line. Like most of Puerto Rico, the city was hit hard by Hurricane Maria last fall. It's still trying to recover.

    But the people here have problems beyond poverty and storm damage.

  • ALBERTO COLON:

    The next house, the man died of cancer…

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Alberto Colon is a retired maintenance worker in Miramar, one of the city's poorer neighborhoods. He suffers from sinusitis and has developed an abscess on his chest.

    Down the street from his house, a truck pulls away from a home where it has delivered medical supplies. Colon says, that's a common sight here.

  • ALBERTO COLON:

    People complain about diseases like asthma, cancer. It's normal for people to have cancer. Before a certain point, if a person here got cancer you would say: "My God, this person has cancer!" Today, you see them as just one more person.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Colon believes he knows the source of his neighborhood's suffering. Miramar sits downwind from Puerto Rico's only coal-burning power plant—and a 120 foot-high mound of an industrial product the plant generates by burning coal. It's called Agremax.

    Agremax consists mostly of coal ash. Residents here say the wind carries ash residue from the mound into their community.

    Alberto colon's wife, Margarita Perez, says their home's surfaces are covered in a thin layer of ash residue.

  • MARGARITA PEREZ:

    This right here? I just cleaned it. Look!

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Her sister, Natividad Perez Burgos—who also lives in the neighborhood—was diagnosed with cancer in both her lungs and her liver five years ago. And she suffers from skin lesions on her torso.

  • NATIVIDAD PEREZ BURGOS:

    It's not easy, to be told that you have cancer. You think you're going to die, that cancer means death. I'm fighting harder now because I'm not the only one who's been hurt in my community.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    According to a recent survey by the University of Puerto Rico's School of Public Health, almost one in ten people in the community have been diagnosed with cancer. One in four have a respiratory disease. And more than one half have heart disease.

  • ELIAS SOSTRE:

    We handle the operation of the plant. We are in direct contact with the pro– with the coal combustion products on a daily basis. I have been working in the plant for 16 years, as have many of my co-workers. And– we– we are– we are healthy.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Elias Sostre is operations manager at the coal plant, which is owned by AES, an energy company based in Virginia. Since it began operations in 2002, the plant has supplied nearly twenty percent of Puerto Rico's electricity.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    And according to an audit by the Puerto Rican government, the AES plant saved the island more than 500 million dollars in its first five years alone. Sostre says it's also a model of environmental efficiency.

  • ELIAS SOSTRE:

    We got here the best available technology to produce power, and to do so with the lowest emissions. At the time that we went online, we set the standard for the lowest emissions.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    For more than a decade, the number of Guayama cancer cases hovered at about 100 per year. But within a year of the plant's 2002 opening, the number of cases rose by nearly 50%. The most recent figures show that new cancer cases have stayed near that level, spiking even higher in 2013.

    From the start, the company was producing Agremax from coal ash.

    Coal ash has trace amounts of heavy metals including arsenic, chromium, and mercury–substances that can become hazardous if there is enough present.

    According to AES, the plant produces 220-thousand tons of coal ash a year.

    But in the company's original contract with Puerto Rico's electric authority, the ash could not be stored on the island, unless it had a beneficial commercial use–which it did.

    The plant mixed coal ash with water to create Agremax, that concrete-like material that sits outside the plant. AES marketed Agremax for use in Puerto Rican roads and construction, among other things.

    According to the EPA, over two million tons of the material was used in thirty-three sites on the island between 2004 and 2012.

    Dr. Gerson Jimenez Castañón is the medical director for Menonita medical center, the only hospital in Puerto Rico's southeast region. He says he began to see a higher influx of patients two to three years after the coal-burning plant was built.

  • DR. GERSON JIMÉNEZ:

    We were seeing patients coming in with more respiratory problems—and not just respiratory problems, but each time it was more serious.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Did you immediately connect that change to the plant, was that something that you assumed was happening?

  • DR. GERSON JIMÉNEZ:

    Yes, yes, I did make the connection. As I saw it, only one new thing had come here. Many of the other plants had already closed and that was the only new one.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    But despite the anecdotal evidence, there's no proven link between coal ash and Guayama's health problems. And the U.S. government has done no definitive study regarding coal ash's potential effects on human health.

    A 2014 Environmental Protection Agency ruling regulated coal ash as non-hazardous solid waste. But environmental groups decried the ruling. The New York Times called it "a victory for electric utility companies and the coal industry."

    Just a year before, a University of Illinois study linked coal ash to increases in asthma and lung cancer. Another, published in 2014 by the advocacy groups Earthjustice and Physicians for Social Justice, linked the material to increases in heart and respiratory diseases, cancer, and stroke.

    By that time AES had stopped marketing Agremax. But it does still convert coal ash into Agremax in order to legally dispose of it in approved landfills on the island.

    Alberto Colon says you can still see coal dust from Agremax where it was used as a filler on dirt roads.

  • ALBERTO COLON:

    Right now we have the roads here that are filled in with it so much that once they become dry, you can see the ash moving freely on the surface, blowing around. That same ash is going from the road into the air and it will eventually go to the water where it will contaminate the aquifer.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Local fear of contamination from the coal ash has become so widespread that protesters have gathered along the roads when the material is shipped from the plant. The government has employed police in riot gear to protect the trucks transporting Agremax.

    Dr. Luis Bonilla Soto, an environmental researcher from the University of Puerto Rico School of Public Health, says protesters' fears may be justified. He says that Agremax could contaminate ground water at sites where it was used–especially after an event like Hurricane Maria.

  • DR. LUIS BONILLA SOTO:

    María was the strongest hurricane to hit the island, it brought intense rains. In a few weeks fifteen inches of rain fell and, obviously, all those heavy metals that are in the ash are soluble in water. The rain gets into the ash, and it leaches through the subsoil and pollutes the aquifer.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    As evidence, Bonilla points to a 2012 EPA-commissioned analysis of Agremax by Vanderbilt University. It found that, when exposed to water, Agremax has the potential to leach substances such as arsenic, boron, chloride, and chromium at over a hundred times the levels the EPA considers acceptable for drinking water.

    In a statement to NewsHour Weekend, the EPA said the study "did not assess the health effects of Agremax" itself, and "the only conclusion that should be drawn from the sampling analysis report is that contaminants can leach from this material at these levels under certain conditions."

    Elias Sostre, the coal plant operations manager, says the EPA report has been used by environmental and health advocates to stoke unjustified fears.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Tania Vazquez Rivera agrees. She heads Puerto Rico's Environmental Quality Board. Vazquez says the EQB has offered to hold events to discuss Agremax with the public.

  • TANIA VAZQUEZ RIVERA:

    We actually told the people, "We can go to a scientific forum with scientific data and explain it." We don't want more incorrect information over there creatin'—creating panic to people that already—if you have somebody that's sick in your house and somebody tells you to– who to blame, you know, you g—really gonna be passionate about it.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Vazquez points out that Guayama had been an industrial center for decades before AES arrived. She says that any number of substances from former and current plants and factories could play a role in the health problems facing people there.

    She notes that just a mile and a half away from Alberto Colon's neighborhood of Miramar are two pharmaceutical plants and a superfund site that has been operating since 1999.

    Vazquez also says that AES consistently sends her agency measurements of coal ash components and that up to now, they've always stayed within the EQB's safety standards.

  • TANIA VAZQUEZ RIVERA:

    They never were out of range. So they were complying with it all the time.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Those tests haven't convinced, Dr. Gerson Jimenez. He says he has petitioned the Puerto Rican government to do a study on the effects of coal ash from the AES plant, but to no avail.

  • DR. GERSON JIMÉNEZ:

    I have participated in at least eight or nine public hearings of the Puerto Rican legislature. I've written to them and others about the problem and risk that this plant represents. I even asked on several occasions that the Department of Health or the government do a scientific study on the higher incidences of these cases and they have not done anything despite all the information that we have provided them with about the problems this causes.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    New findings have added fuel to the debate over coal ash. Last month AES released its most recent groundwater monitoring report. It showed that between September 12th and October 4th of last year, levels of arsenic, chromium, and even two radioactive isotopes had increased dramatically in groundwater near the coal plant's large mound of Agremax.

    That increase took place around the time Hurricane Maria hit the island. The Environmental Quality Board had ordered AES to cover the Agremax pile before the storm, but the company did not comply. The board later fined AES. The company is contesting the fine.

  • ELIAS SOSTRE:

    This is a concrete-like—product. It was—it was not necessary to co—to cover the pile. And the fact is that after a category—a category five hurricane coming by island, the pile was in the same shape, way and form before and after the hurricane. So our—our position was validated.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Puerto Rico's Environmental Quality Board has ordered AES to send it more information on its latest groundwater readings, and the company says it has complied. The EQB is now reviewing that information.

    Meanwhile, back in the Miramar neighborhood in Guayama, locals gather to discuss their concerns about the coal ash–and their neighborhood's future.

  • NATIVIDAD PEREZ BURGOS:

    I think about my grandchildren and I think about the suffering that these people have gone through. They need to do something. Investigate, check the environment. Because now it is our people but tomorrow it could be theirs because we are on the same island. It does not just affect Guayama, it affects all of Puerto Rico.

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