Puerto Rican activists fight coal ash dumping

Sept. 2017 PR coal ashINTERVIEW BY ERNIE GOTTA

Puerto Rico has suffered for generations under the direct and indirect rule by the United States. The wealth of the island has been stripped by corporate interests while farmers and workers on the island have struggled with political, economic, and environmental degradation.

Activists both at home and in the diaspora are leading a massive struggle against austerity and environmental destruction. Alexis Diaz, a Puerto Rican activist living in Connecticut, discusses the fight against the dumping of toxic coal ash in the poorest regions of the island.

Ernie Gotta: What is coal ash and why are people protesting the dumping of coal ash in Puerto Rico?

Alexis Diaz: Coal ash is the waste material left after coal is burned. Coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury, and other heavy metals—many of which are toxic. This is having a negative effect on people’s health and the environment. There have been reported increases in cancer, asthma, and other respiratory illnesses in the areas most affected by the coal ash. Residents complain of ash literally showing up at the front door and in their homes from the wind.

EG: Who is most affected by the coal ash?

AD: The people most affected are those living in and around the areas where the coal ash is being dumped, primarily in the municipalities of Guayama, Peñuelas, and Salinas on the southern coast. These are historically some of the poorest areas of Puerto Rico, which have been subjected to exploitation and natural resource extraction. This is also a region with a high concentration of Black communities. This is a textbook example of environmental racism.

EG: Why did Applied Energy Systems (AES) choose Puerto Rico?

AD: It is not a coincidence that they are doing this in poor, historically marginalized areas of Puerto Rico. Not only are they operating in a colony but in the most marginalized areas within the colony. They can commit these injustices in a cloak of invisibility. They are importing toxic garbage from coal operations in Virginia and using these communities as the dump. There are also a variety of tax exemptions that corporations benefit from when operating in Puerto Rico.

EG: In July the governor of Puerto Rico signed an “anti-dumping” law. Have the companies stopped dumping?

AD: The governor passed a law banning the dumping of coal ash. However, the dumping has continued. It is essentially dumping by another name—the ash being repurposed. While he has claimed that this is not ash, it clearly is. Activists and scientists/researchers continue to call the administration out on their faulty logic and repressive tactics. It may be technically “refined-processed” but it still contains the same toxic material. It is a way to circumvent criticism and any EPA regulations that may provide legal barriers to dumping. Commercial use is being encouraged by using this waste to develop materials for construction such as concrete.

EG: Can you describe how the movement in Puerto Rico is fighting back?

AD: There have been encampments set up in Peñuelas and Guayama in attempts to block the dumping and transport of coal ash. It has been led by residents of these communities, with people from all over Puerto Rico joining them. However, there has been extreme repression by militarized law enforcement. Hundreds of police have escorted these trucks, forcing them through the encampments that are trying to block them. It really is a display of who the police are protecting and serving.

EG: What demands are you raising?

AD: AES must completely stop the dumping and transport of coal ash or coal combustion residuals, return the coal ash to their source to be disposed of as safely as possible, and pay reparations to the people in these communities that have been impacted.

EG: How does this fight connect to the struggle against the fiscal control board?

AD: This fight is directly connected to the larger struggle to decolonize Puerto Rico. The colonial fiscal control board is an instrument of creditors and banks to implement draconian austerity measures. Puerto Rico is essentially up for sale to corporate vultures on every level—including environmentally. The colonial government is relaxing what little environmental regulations are left. This is happening while EPA regulations and protections are being done away with at the federal level. Natural resources are up for sale at a time of widespread privatization and wholly undemocratic governing.

EG: How do Puerto Ricans in the diaspora respond to this issue?

AD: Educating each other is critical because there is little news coverage on Puerto Rico, let alone on this injustice. News is being spread via word of mouth and social media. Puerto Ricans and our allies need to recognize there is collective power in the U.S. There are over 5 million Puerto Ricans in the U.S. compared to just over 3 million in Puerto Rico. A great deal of the people left on the island are the elderly, the very young, and the very poor, and are subject to increased repression and draconian measures in a time of historic crisis. It is vital that the diaspora mobilize efforts to confront these crises and support those back home in Puerto Rico.

EG: Recently, you presented and got a resolution on coal ash passed during a general assembly of 350 Connecticut. What are you hoping comes from passing this resolution?

AD: I am grateful for the resolution passed at the general assembly of 350 CT, and I hope that it brings more attention to the issue and the overall issue of colonialism in Puerto Rico. Anyone who believes in 100% renewable energy should be appalled at what is taking place. It is important that we garner solidarity and support in the United States and internationally.

EG: How can people get involved?

AD: There are grassroots efforts in these very communities to switch to alternate, renewable forms of energy. Specifically, in regards to solar power—studies have shown that today there is the capacity for Puerto Rico’s electrical demand to be supplied solely off solar power. Let’s keep in mind that electricity costs in PR are double, and some cases triple, what they are in the Northeast United States. Community-led initiatives are finding ways to wean off the archaic utility grid and building structures that benefit their community rather than corporate interests.

As for how people can get involved, visiting Puerto Rico is always an option. These communities need all the support they can get. Stateside, there are a variety of organizations and community groups (such as Defend Puerto Rico and Comité Boricua en la Diaspora, to name a few) that are raising awareness and mobilizing efforts in regard to the coal ash dumping and many other issues revolving around Puerto Rico.

Photo: Adriana De Jesús Salamán / Diálogo