Giant Pile of Toxic Coal Ash Is Being Moved From Puerto Rico to Florida, Sparking Outcry

Not the Puerto Rican coal ash mountain, but this is what coal ash looks like.
Photo: AP

On the south coast of Puerto Rico, a five-story mountain of coal ash once sat in the town of Guayama. It’s contaminated the surrounding drinking water with things like boron, lithium, and sulfate—all dangerous to human health above certain levels. Now, all that ash, a byproduct of coal production, is being shipped to a county outside Orlando, Florida, where many Hurricane Maria survivors now live. And people are unhappy, to say the least.

Puerto Rico outlawed the dumping of coal ash back in 2017, but the Applied Energy Systems Puerto Rico (AES) coal plant continues to produce this waste. Now the ash must be exported. In April, the Osceola County Board of Commissioners agreed to start taking it and adding it to a local landfill owned by Waste Connections, a multinational company with sites across the U.S. and Canada. Since then, the county has received some 44,000 tons, according to ClickOrlando.com, with another 100,000 tons expected. While the county is getting paid $2 per ton, the commissioners are now trying to reverse their decision, per a local ABC station, sending a letter Monday to Waste Connections asking them to voluntarily kill the contract, which doesn’t expire until the end of the year.

The commissioners are responding to a public outcry over this decision, which was done without any public input, according to Univision. All this fuss is over the potential health impacts from the coal ash. After all, Florida sees hurricanes too, and residents are worried about how one could spread the landfill’s contaminants around. The landfill is lined, which helps prevent the toxins from reaching the groundwater beneath, but hurricanes still pose a real threat in terms of spreading waste across the surface.

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“My concern is hurricane season,” said Douglas Lowe, a resident who lives near the landfill, to the Orlando Sentinel. “I’m afraid if we have another hurricane hit Central Florida we would have this ash disperse across the local area.”

In North Carolina, it was widely reported that coal ash spilled into local waterways after Hurricane Florence last year. In Puerto Rico, long before this transport into Florida began, the ash pile was leaching levels of chromium, a carcinogen, that exceeded up to 9,000 times the acceptable limit by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to a 2012 EPA report. An analysis last year showed that nearly all coal plants in the country were contaminating groundwater thanks to poor regulation of coal ash ponds.

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Some Puerto Ricans may have thought they were leaving that level of environmental waste behind, but it followed them here to the mainland. Osceola County saw 2,700 Puerto Rican students enroll in its schools for the 2017-2018 school year after the hurricane displaced their families So long as coal production exists, so will this ash—and it’s gotta go somewhere.

Earther reached out to Waste Connections and AES for comment. We’ll update if we hear back.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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