In Puerto Rico, residents wait for accountability, cleanup of toxic coal ash ‘caminos blancos’

In Puerto Rico, residents wait for accountability, cleanup of toxic coal ash ‘caminos blancos’

The nearly 14 million people of color who live in rural America face unique challenges that run the gamut — from industry land grabs to struggles with broadband and a lack of representation in business and in government that makes it near impossible for many to cultivate generational wealth. This six-part series from the Rural News Network, with support from the Walton Family Foundation, elevates the issues these communities are facing and what some are doing to change their fates.

SALINAS, Puerto Rico — After Sol Piñeiro retired from bilingual special education in New Jersey public schools, she bought a dream house in Salinas on Puerto Rico’s south coast, near the town where she was born.

She and her husband built a traditional Puerto Rican casita beside the main home and filled the sprawling yard with orchids, cacti and colorful artifacts, including a bright red vintage pickup truck.

Only after setting up her slice of paradise here did she learn the road running alongside it contained toxic waste from a nearby power plant.

Salinas is one of 14 municipalities around the island that between 2004 and 2011 used coal ash as a cheap material to construct roads and fill land. The material is a byproduct of burning coal and is known to contain a long list of toxic and radioactive chemicals. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not specifically regulate coal ash until 2015, and those regulations don’t cover the coal ash used in roads like that in Salinas.

Any community with a coal-burning power plant likely has tons of toxic coal ash stored somewhere nearby, in pits, ponds or piles. In 2015, the EPA announced new rules requiring groundwater testing and safer storage and disposal methods, but the rules exempt power companies from responsibility for ash dispersed for use in road building and other projects.

Scant or nonexistent recordkeeping makes comprehensively mapping this scattered coal ash impossible, but environmental and public health advocates suspect the material is likely contaminating groundwater and causing toxic dust across the United States.

Perhaps nowhere is the problem as prominent as on Puerto Rico’s south coast, a rural, economically struggling region far from the capital of San Juan and major tourist destinations. Here, coal ash — or “cenizas” in Spanish — has become a symbol of the environmental injustice that has long plagued the U.S. colony.

The ash originated from a coal-fired power plant owned by global energy company AES in the nearby town of Guayama. After the Dominican Republic began refusing imports of the waste, the company promoted the material to Puerto Rican municipalities and contractors as a construction fill product. In all, more than 1.5 million tons of coal ash were deposited in Salinas and Guayama, according to a 2012 letter by the company’s vice president that was obtained by the Puerto Rico-based Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, or Center for Investigative Journalism.

In July 2022, a decade after community pressure forced the company to stop marketing ash for such use, EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited Guayama and Salinas to meet with residents about coal ash and other environmental issues as part of his “Journey to Justice” tour. The tour also included the agency’s first Environmental Justice Advisory Council meeting in Puerto Rico. Piñeiro and others are glad for the attention, but given the U.S. government’s long history of broken promises and neglect in Puerto Rico, they are impatient for meaningful action.

From left, José Cora Collazo, Sol Piñeiro, and Carlos Lago on the coal ash road running along Piñeiro’s home.
From left, José Cora Collazo, Sol Piñeiro, and Carlos Lago on the coal ash road running along Piñeiro’s home. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Energy injustice

Piñeiro learned the backstory of the powdery gray road material when she connected with José Cora Collazo, who lives in a mint-green home perched on a hillside nearby, with sweeping views of the south coast. Piñeiro has since joined Cora in leading the organization Acción Social y Protección Ambiental, raising awareness about coal ash and demanding change from local and U.S. officials.

While the majority of Puerto Rico’s population lives on the north coast, including the San Juan area, the bulk of the island’s power is generated on the south coast, including at the AES coal plant as well as a nearby power plant that burns oil. That means the residents of Guayama, Salinas and other nearby communities could be subject to a myriad of public health risks, experts and activists say, while the mangrove ecosystem of Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and area fisheries could also be threatened.

During frequent heavy rains, Piñeiro and Cora see the gray coal ash streaming down crumbling roads and into the tangled brush and creeks that traverse the hillsides. As Piñeiro’s picturesque homestead is on a slope below the road Calle Luis Llorens Torres, the coal ash runs down onto her property.

Local residents draw drinking water from their own private wells or a network of municipal wells, and they worry that coal ash is polluting the groundwater. In 2021, chemist Osvaldo Rosario spearheaded testing of tap water in area homes and found disturbing signs of contamination with toxic metals known to be in coal ash. In August, Rosario and colleagues retested the same homes and are awaiting results.

Rosario’s testing and ongoing activism by locals spurred the U.S. EPA to do its own groundwater testing this spring. EPA spokesperson Robert Daguillard previously told the Energy News Network the agency anticipated presenting the results in late September; EPA did not respond to a recent query about the status of the results.

“EPA’s focus on CCR [coal combustion residuals] in Puerto Rico follows the commitment made by Administrator Regan during his Journey to Justice visit with communities concerned with the management of CCR in Puerto Rico,” Daguillard said in response to the Energy News Network’s questions.

AES’ coal plant in Guayama.
AES’ coal plant in Guayama. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Broken promises, problematic offers

When AES built the coal plant, it promised the resulting ash would be shipped off the island. An investigation by Centro de Periodismo Investigativo revealed that in its first two years of operation, more than 100 million tons of coal ash from the plant were sent to the Dominican Republic, dumped in and around the town of Arroyo Barril and several ports. Soon residents noticed a spike in birth defects, miscarriages and other ailments, which experts attributed to the coal ash pollution.

The country barred coal ash imports. In U.S. court, AES agreed to pay $6 million to remove the coal ash. Meanwhile, AES began marketing the byproduct in Puerto Rico as a construction fill under the brand name Agremax. The ash was used in the wealthy San Juan-area town of Dorado and the university town of Mayaguez on the west coast, but use was heaviest on the south coast.

“They began dumping the ash in many areas of Puerto Rico as the base for many roads, many trails, unpaved trails of pure ash,” Rosario said. “They would fill in flood-prone areas so there could be construction. There was illegal dumping in many open areas. They literally gave the ash away; they paid for the transportation. A contractor would say, ‘I need 20 tons of coal ash to fill in this area,’ and they would bring the coal ash.”

A 2023 report by the environmental organization Earthjustice noted that the toxic ash still lies unused and uncovered at sites where it poses health risks to people in nearby homes, parks, a school and a hospital. “At numerous sites, the coal ash was left uncovered or covered only with a thin layer of dirt, which quickly eroded,” the report said. “Fugitive dust from these uncovered piles and roads is common.”

Rosario said that the use of coal ash was done “under the permissive oversight of government agencies.”

“You put a couple inches of topsoil over it, then when that topsoil gets eroded away or you dig to plant a tree, you reach this gray material which is the ash,” he said. “The water level is not far below that. This was done behind the backs of the people. They got mortgages for houses built on toxic material.”

Sol Piñeiro pictured in her yard holding a piece of produce she grew. The sprawling yard is filled with orchids, cacti and colorful artifacts, including a bright red vintage pickup truck.
Sol Piñeiro in her yard, with produce she grew. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Unencapsulated ash

In 2012, Vanderbilt University tested Agremax at the behest of the U.S. EPA. It found that the material — a mix of fly ash and bottom ash — leached high concentrations of arsenic, boron, chloride, chromium, fluoride, lithium and molybdenum.

Coal ash is commonly used as a component in concrete, and it is widely considered safe when it is encapsulated in such material.

But unencapsulated use of coal ash, while legal, is opposed by environmental groups  who fear that the dangerous heavy metals known to leach into groundwater can spread and potentially expose people to carcinogens and neurotoxins through drinking water, soil and air.

Advocates have long argued for stricter regulation of unencapsulated use of coal ash. As the Energy News Network explored in a 2022 investigation, throughout the U.S. developers can use up to 12,400 tons of unencapsulated coal ash without notifying the public.

There are about a billion tons of coal ash stored in impoundments and landfills around the U.S., and testing required under 2015 federal rules shows that almost all of it is contaminating groundwater, as Earthjustice, Environmental Integrity Project and other organizations have shown based on the companies’ own groundwater monitoring data. This summer, the EPA expanded what types of coal ash storage are subject to the rules, including ash at repositories that were closed before 2015.

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit last year demanding that the expanded rules also address ash used as structural fill in places like Salinas and Guayama.

But the agency did not mention such ash in its revision to the rules, with the draft released in May. In June, Cora traveled to Chicago to testify before the EPA. Unless they are changed, the rules leave his neighbors and others across Puerto Rico with few legal avenues to fight for accountability and remediation.

“The coal ash industry has their laboratories; they know what they are doing,” Rosario said. “I go back to the word ‘avarice’ — they know all of this, just like the tobacco industry.”

AES, which is headquartered in Arlington County, Virginia, did not respond to questions from the Energy News Network. A regional AES representative instead provided a statement saying: “For more than 20 years, AES Puerto Rico has been bringing safe, affordable, and reliable energy to the island and supplying up to 25% of the island’s energy needs. We remain committed to accelerating the responsible transition to renewable energy for the island and the people of Puerto Rico.”

A history of struggle

Cora was aware of environmental issues from childhood. His father, José Juan Cora Rosa, was a prominent activist who fought against the U.S. Navy’s bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, among other iconic struggles.

The elder Cora explained that in the late 1990s, local resistance halted plans to build a coal plant in Mayaguez, the town on Puerto Rico’s west coast home to a prominent technical university. The coal plant was instead opened in 2002 in Guayama, despite opposition from the elder Cora and other residents. He said the company likely knew they’d face less pushback since Guayama’s population is smaller and economically struggling.

For years now, residents of Guayama and Salinas have complained of health effects — from tumors to skin disease — that they think are caused by the coal plant. A 2016 study by the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Public Health showed a disproportionately high incidence of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, asthma, hives and spontaneous abortions in Guayama. Other studies have found high cancer rates in the area, according to reporting by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo.

Salinas resident Victor Alvarado Guzmán has seen such health issues firsthand. His wife is a cancer survivor, and he notes that on two blocks in the Miramar community of Guayama, 18 people have had cancer, some fatal cases.

“That’s not normal,” he said.

Salinas resident and environmental activist Victor Alvarado Guzmán stands across the street from a shopping center that was built on a foundation of coal ash.
Salinas resident and environmental activist Victor Alvarado Guzmán wants to see coal ash removed from his community, where it was used to build roads and the foundation for shopping centers like this one. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Alvarado is trained as a psychologist but has been an environmental activist for a quarter-century, fighting unsuccessfully against the coal plant and successfully to block a proposed landfill and chicken processing plant from the area. He’s co-founder of the grassroots environmental group Diálogo Ambiental, and he’s run for public office.

Sitting in a restaurant in Salinas built on a foundation of coal ash, Alvarado said he wants to see historic ash removed from the community, and he wants the government to pay for soil and water testing plus blood testing for residents to see how heavy metals from coal ash may be affecting them.

Under a gazebo in Guayama on a stifling hot August afternoon, local environmental activists gathered to discuss the risk from coal ash, and the plant’s air emissions.

“Every time we have a meeting, we hear about someone else who is sick,” noted Miriam Gallardo, a teacher who used to work at a school near the plant, seeing coal ash-laden trucks go by.

Aldwin Colón, founder of community group Comunidad Guayama Unidos Por Tu Salud — Guayama Community United for Your Health — said that on his block, people in four out of the nine homes have cancer. He said he blames the coal plant and the public officials who have not done more to protect residents. He noted that Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi was previously a lobbyist representing AES.

He lamented that the company chose to build the plant in a lower-income community with little tourism.

“In poor communities, we don’t have the resources to fight back,” Colón said, in Spanish. “These are criminal companies that use corrupt politics for their own means. This is racism and classism — the same old story, the slaves sacrificed for the patron.”

Colón, Piñeiro and Cora drove around the area with other activists from Guayama to show the Energy News Network multiple sites where coal ash is visible. They pulled over along a major road, Dulces Sueños — Sweet Dreams — built in recent years. One man dug a shovel into the embankment next to the road. After turning over a few inches of soil and foliage, his shovel filled with gray powder.

An activist from Guayama digs into the embankment next to a major road as an example of a site where coal ash is visible just inches under the soil.
An activist from Guayama digs into the embankment next to a major road as an example of a site where coal ash is visible just inches under the soil. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Continuing through Salinas and Guayama, Piñeiro pointed out the strip malls and fast food stores that were built on top of coal ash, among 36 specific locations documented by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo.

Cora and Piñeiro noted the coal ash-laden “caminos blancos” — white roads, as they are commonly known — traversing the countryside, known as hot destinations for mountain bikers.

At a small store in Guayama, older men passed the sweltering afternoon sitting on plastic chairs sipping Medalla beers. The owner of the store, Jacob Soto Lopez, recounted how he used to jog on dirt roads in the nearby town of Arroyo — until he learned the dust he was kicking up was toxic coal ash. Now he frets about how it may be contaminating the drinking water.

“We sell bottled water here, but a lot of people can’t afford it,” he said. “They should stop producing the ashes and take away what they’ve thrown on our island.”

A recent environmental protest in Salinas. Dozens of activists hold signs, written in Spanish, protesting coal ash contamination in Puerto Rico.
A recent environmental protest in Salinas. Credit: José Cora Collazo / Courtesy

A revolt

On the mainland, many Americans are unaware of the threat posed by coal ash, or even its existence, since it is often stored on coal plant sites, in roads and berms, and in quarries, ravines, or old mines. The federal rules regulating coal ash that took effect in 2015 were barely enforced until 2022, when the EPA began issuing decisions related to the rules.

But in communities on Puerto Rico’s south coast, the term “cenizas” — ashes in Spanish — is often recognized as a signifier of injustice and popular struggle.

When AES offloaded Agremax for use in construction and fill starting in 2004, it’s possible local officials and others did not understand the risks. But concerns soon grew and multiple municipalities passed ordinances banning the storage of coal ash.

In 2016, residents of Peñuelas — 40 miles west of the plant — revolted over AES’ plan to truck ash to a landfill in their community, despite a municipal ordinance banning coal ash. Hundreds of people occupied the street, blocking trucks from entering the landfill, and dozens of arrests were made over several days in November 2016. AES stopped sending ash to Peñuelas.

Manuel “Nolo” Díaz, a leader of that movement, noted that locals were ready to snap into action since they had previously worked together to oppose a plan to build a gas pipeline through the area.

“We took over the street to enforce the law,” Díaz said, in Spanish. “It’s so beautiful when people come together to defend their rights. But the fight is not over until they remove the ashes from the 14 towns, and decontaminate the water they’ve contaminated.”

In 2017, the island’s government passed a law banning the storage of coal ash on the island. Since then, AES has shipped coal ash from the island to U.S. ports including Jacksonville, Florida, for storage in landfills in Georgia and elsewhere, the Energy News Network has reported.

While coal ash is no longer permanently stored in Puerto Rico, a mound of coal ash multiple stories high is visible at AES’ site, where it is allowed to be stored temporarily before transport. And coal ash still makes up the street above Piñeiro’s home and many others, creating milky gray rivulets running down the hills and likely percolating into drinking water sources.

Vanessa Uriarte, executive director of the group Amigos del Mar, speaks surrounded by other activists at a press conference outside of Puerto Rico’s natural resources department in San Juan.
Vanessa Uriarte, executive director of the group Amigos del Mar, speaks at a press conference outside of Puerto Rico’s natural resources department in San Juan. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

A conundrum

The law against storing coal ash on the island could complicate efforts to remove it from roads and fill sites, since it would need to be transported and stored somewhere.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency allocated about $8 million for Salinas to repair roads in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Maria. Cora, Piñeiro and others have demanded that the money be used to remove coal ash from roads and rebuild them.

Last year, Salinas Mayor Karilyn Bonilla Colón requested an exception to the law banning the disposal of coal ash on the island, so that coal ash could be extracted from the roads in Salinas and deposited in landfills in Ponce, Humacao or Peñuelas. She told local media that exporting the ash off the island would be too expensive.

Organizations in Peñuelas and beyond opposed the move, calling it disrespectful to their communities. In January, the natural resources department denied the mayor’s request.

Piñeiro and Cora are frustrated Bonilla has not found another way to remove and dispose of the ash. On Sept. 5, activists painted on the street in Salinas with large letters calling the mayor “asesina ambiental” — an environmental assassin.

A spokesperson for Bonilla said she is no longer doing interviews about coal ash, and referred the Energy News Network to local news coverage of the controversy.

Cora and other activists are now appealing to Manuel A. Laboy Rivera, the executive director of the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency which oversees FEMA fund distribution in Puerto Rico, since he recently warned that 80 municipalities, government agencies and organizations in Puerto Rico will have to return the emergency funds if they can’t prove they’ve been used.

Cora and Piñeiro note that many of their neighbors are elderly, and don’t feel urgency around coal ash after having survived two hurricanes and a major earthquake in the past six years, not to mention the island’s ongoing economic crisis.

“But what about future generations?” Piñeiro asked.

“If the aquifer is contaminated and we don’t have potable water in Salinas, how can people live here?” added Cora, in Spanish. “What can we do?”

Cora, Piñeiro and their allies want the coal plant to close and be replaced by clean energy, and indeed Puerto Rico has passed a law calling for a transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050. But they don’t want the clean energy transition to replicate the injustices of the fossil fuel economy, and they feel plans for massive solar farms on the south coast — developed in part by AES — could do just that.

While solar farms are emissions-free, they continue the problem of reliance on a fragile centralized grid and put the island’s energy burden on the south coast.

Opponents say the proposed massive arrays of solar panels cause flooding and erosion — by compacting land and causing run-off — while also displacing agricultural land. Attorney Ruth Santiago, who has lived most of her life in Salinas, is representing environmental groups that recently filed a lawsuit against the Puerto Rico government over 18 planned solar farms, including by AES.

On Aug. 7, Alvarado led activists from island-wide environmental groups in delivering a letter to Puerto Rico’s natural resources department in San Juan, making demands around coal ash, solar farms and other issues.

“Under the theme of an energy transition that is just and clean, how are they going to deal with the deposit of toxic ashes across the country?” said Vanessa Uriarte, executive director of the group Amigxs del Mar, in Spanish, outside the department’s office. “The department needs to tell us what their plan of action is to deal with this problem. And now the same company that has contaminated our community with coal ash is taking our agricultural lands for solar panels.”

Energy justice leaders instead want decentralized small solar and microgrids that are resilient during disasters and cause minimal environmental impacts so that future generations are not left with more injustices like coal ash.

“It’s this strange situation where it’s not a problem about the lack of funding,” Santiago said, referring to federal funds allocated to Puerto Rico. “There’s more than enough funding, but it’s being used to rebuild this business-as-usual kind of electric system. This disaster recovery funding should be an opportunity to transform the electric system in a way that would really serve the public interest.”

In Puerto Rico, residents wait for accountability, cleanup of toxic coal ash ‘caminos blancos’ is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

At rules hearing, U.S. EPA hears human toll of unaddressed coal ash pollution

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U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials were met with photos and tearful stories of deceased loved ones at a national hearing in Chicago on Wednesday regarding the agency’s proposed new rules regulating coal ash. 

The proposed rules, released in May, would subject hundreds more coal ash dumps to federal regulations adopted in 2015. But scores of coal ash dumps would remain unregulated, leading residents and advocates to plead with the EPA to further expand the proposed rules and step up enforcement of existing rules. 

The environmental injustice of coal ash was clear at the hearing, as residents testified from Native American communities in New Mexico and Nevada, Latino communities in Midwestern cities, and Black communities in Alabama and Tennessee, among others. Multiple people told the EPA officials about their friends and family who had died or suffered from cancer or other illnesses they attribute to coal ash. 

The proposed rules would, for the first time, regulate coal ash ponds that were inactive as of 2015. But the rules would still exempt categories of dumps that speakers at the hearing called “arbitrary,” including repositories not in contact with water as of 2015, coal ash dumps at plants closed before 2015 that don’t have a currently regulated pond at the same site, and scattered coal ash used as structural fill. 

“Anecdotally we know such sites include playgrounds, schools, roads and other uses that humans regularly come into contact with,” Earthjustice deputy managing attorney Gavin Kearney said of sites where coal ash fill was used. 

He noted that there is no comprehensive data regarding coal ash ponds supposedly not in contact with liquid, but experts are sure companies will invoke that exception. Earthjustice and its partners, meanwhile, have identified more than 100 dumps on at least 48 sites that would meet the exception for closed ponds at active power plants without another regulated coal ash impoundment.   

“Creating these distinctions undermines confidence in the rule and also gives industry cover, in good faith or bad faith, that they are trying to implement the rule but aren’t sure how it applies to their sites,” Kearney told the EPA representatives. 

Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, likewise warned that it “undercuts the credibility of EPA and our government to have to say, ‘See, that over there is not protected because of some highly technical reason that’s not connected to common sense.’” 

Attorney Faith Bugel testified that regulating all coal ash on a site without exceptions is critical to avoid companies saying that contamination is from an “alternate source,” including coal ash not covered by the regulations, and hence avoiding responsibility for cleaning it up. “So often (alternative source arguments) have been used as an escape valve from the 2015 rules,” Bugel said. 

Drinking water fears

Unregulated coal ash is of particular concern to people who get their water from private wells, as numerous people noted at the hearing. 

Environmental groups’ analysis of company data reported under the 2015 rules shows that groundwater is being contaminated at 91% of those coal plant sites. No testing is required around ash not covered by the regulations. But experts say it is even more likely to be contaminating groundwater, since it was dumped when standards around liners and other protections were even lower. 

Private water wells are only tested if the owner pays for the testing, which is inaccessible for many. Paul Kysel told the EPA about testing his own well water for contaminants associated with farming and getting clean results. He said he didn’t realize that a partially unlined coal ash pond less than a mile from his home in Pines Township, Indiana, could be contaminating his water with chemicals not detected in that test. 

Nearby Town of Pines, Indiana, became a Superfund site due to tons of coal ash from NIPSCO’s Michigan City plant that was used as fill throughout the town. Kysel had moved to the bucolic area from Michigan City, where he was sick of “coal dust, nasty odors, (coal dust) deposits on our vehicles and homes.” 

“We thought we were safe,” after moving to Pines Township, Kysel said. “We weren’t safe.” 

He and other locals are upset that the proposed new rules would still not cover coal ash mixed with dune sand to build up land on the lakefront coal plant’s site. A lawsuit filed by environmental groups in Indiana, Illinois and Tennessee alleges that Lake Michigan is at serious risk of coal ash contamination if erosion and increasing storms cause the land to collapse, as happened near We Energies’ Oak Creek coal plant in Wisconsin in 2011. Lake Michigan provides drinking water for millions of people in Chicago, Northwest Indiana and Southeast Wisconsin, where multiple coal plants line the shores.

The settlement of that lawsuit spurred the EPA to release the proposed new rules, though the rules don’t address ash used as fill at sites like the Michigan City plant. 

“This coal ash is ultimately going to rupture into the lake and cause another catastrophe,” Ashley Williams, executive director of Just Transition Northwest Indiana, said at a rally during the hearing. The owner of a Northwest Indiana microbrewery that relies on Lake Michigan water was among other locals who testified at the hearing. 

Earthjustice senior counsel Lisa Evans noted that the new proposed rules would not have covered the ash in Town of Pines nor the ash that spilled into Lake Michigan at Oak Creek. 

“The EPA should have prevented this damage decades ago,” Evans testified. “It is irrational and illegal to regulate some leaking dumps and not others.” 

Ash was used to build up land and was scattered across plant sites in decades past without record-keeping or regulation. This practice essentially continues in the form of beneficial reuse, where coal ash is legally used as “unencapsulated” structural fill. Advocates have also called for stricter regulation of such reuse, including in Wisconsin, where a vast majority of coal ash is reused and groundwater contamination has been shown as a result. 

Chicago has no coal ash ponds or landfills covered by the existing or new proposed rules. But residents worry that as in Michigan City, coal ash was scattered and dumped across the sites of two coal plants that closed in 2012.

Little Village Environmental Justice Organization Executive Director Kim Wasserman noted that the Chicago neighborhood is densely populated by working-class and Latino residents. She echoed demands that new EPA rules require companies to test for historic coal ash scattered around their sites and clean up any they find. 

There is not “sufficient information about the risk the site still poses to surrounding communities,” Wasserman said. She added that the community does not trust the current site owner given its botched implosion of the coal plant in 2020, sending a toxic dust cloud across the community in an “environmental catastrophe,” as Little Village resident Edith Tovar called it at the hearing.

A moving problem

Enforcement and expansion of the federal rules will ultimately mean many millions of tons of coal ash will be removed and transported to safer locations. Such transport has already caused environmental injustices, even as it mitigates other risks.

Activists from around the country rallied in downtown Chicago on June 28, 2023 after testifying at the EPA’s hearing on proposed new coal ash rules. (Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network) 

Carlos Torrealba, an organizer with the Climate Justice Alliance in Florida, lamented how coal ash from Puerto Rico is being disposed of in Florida, including in a private landfill in a community home to a large and growing Puerto Rican population. The Energy News Network documented how the ash from Puerto Rico poses risks to multiple communities on its route in the Southeast.

“It’s really mind-boggling because that coal ash site was put next to the homes of Puerto Ricans who had been displaced from Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria,” Torrealba said. “And now they have the double impact of being displaced, seeking refuge and having coal ash dumped next to you.” 

Cerissa A. Brown of the People’s Justice Council in Birmingham, Alabama, decried how coal ash from the infamous 2008 Kingston, Tennessee, spill was delivered to a landfill in the largely Black community of Uniontown, Alabama. The Energy News Network reported last year that Uniontown residents have been unable to get answers from the private landfill company about its coal ash management procedures and whether it still accepts coal ash.

“Exposure to environmental pollution such as coal ash in Uniontown has resulted in residents suffering physical harm and an escalating mental health crisis,” Brown said. “This reveals systemic racism rooted in our communities.”

Handling and moving coal ash can pose serious risks to workers if adequate protections aren’t in place. 

Betty Johnson’s husband, Tommy, was among the first responders cleaning up the 2008 Kingston spill. She broke down into tears testifying about how he and other workers labored without adequate protective gear. She blames his death last month on his exposure to coal ash. Johnson is among workers who have filed lawsuits against the contractor responsible for the cleanup, citing multiple deaths and serious illnesses. Advocates argue that disasters similar to Kingston could happen if regulations do not require the full cleanup of all coal ash dumps.

“My husband and I had plans when I retired to travel; now he’s in the graveyard,” Johnson said. “And I’m here fighting for my husband and all the workers, everyone who has been hurt by you, because you are not doing your job.”

Julie Bledsoe’s husband also worked on the Kingston cleanup, and would come home blowing coal ash out of his nose, coughing up coal ash, and cleaning coal ash out of his ears with Q-tips. 

“Her husband is a hero,” she said of Tommy Johnson. “My husband is a hero. But they were treated like they were trash.”

Enforcement crucial 

While the existing federal rules took effect in 2015, the EPA did very little to enforce them until last year, when it issued a number of findings and decisions. Among these, the EPA denied some companies’ requests for extensions to an April 2021 deadline for unlined ponds covered by the rules to stop accepting waste. 

The evening before the Chicago hearing, Waukegan residents testified on the EPA’s proposal to deny a request to extend that deadline from plant owner Midwest Generation, a subsidiary of NRG.

While residents support the proposed denial of the extension, they are frustrated that the company has already been allowed to dump for more than two years beyond the deadline. The coal plant closed last summer, but a diesel peaker plant still operates on the site, and residents are concerned that waste from that plant is going into the unlined pond. 

NRG spokesperson Dave Schrader said in a statement: “Midwest Generation remains committed to operating its Waukegan facility safely and in compliance with federal and State of Illinois CCR (coal combustion residual) rules and regulations. Midwest Generation disagrees with the U.S. EPA’s recent proposed determination. The mitigation efforts Midwest Generation has implemented at its Waukegan facility were certified compliant by outside experts and are approved methods of monitoring and protecting groundwater. Midwest Generation has ceased burning coal to generate electricity at Waukegan but continues to manage stormwater. Further, Midwest Generation ceased placing CCR in the East Pond when it ceased burning coal. The pond is only used for stormwater and process water unrelated to CCR.”

Waukegan residents testifying at the Chicago hearing noted that they have been demanding a “just transition” including coal ash removal for a decade, with little response from EPA or NRG.

“Publicly available tests conducted independently confirm there is no risk to human health or the environment from the ash ponds or historic ash area,” Schrader said. “Removing the coal ash, however, would pose unnecessary safety and environmental risks to the community, create significant traffic disruptions, and could take far longer than closing in place.”

Advocates say the EPA needs to not only expand the rules to cover all coal ash dumps, but aggressively enforce its rules.

“Rules are awesome, but without enforcement, companies will keep doing what they’ve been doing,” Waukegan resident Eddie Flores, co-chair of Clean Power Lake County, told the Energy News Network. “If the EPA doesn’t act, companies will just ignore what the EPA says.”

Kari Lydersen has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post’s Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.

At rules hearing, U.S. EPA hears human toll of unaddressed coal ash pollution is a post from Wisconsin Watch, a non-profit investigative news site covering Wisconsin since 2009. Please consider making a contribution to support our journalism.