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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.