For the first time ever, the Environmental Protection Agency will test for groundwater contamination in the southern region of Puerto Rico. Leaders in Guayama requested help in investigating groundwater contamination near a coal ash burial site belonging to a local power plant, Applied Energy Service (AES). AES holds a contract with Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority until 2027. The EPA agreed to invest $100,000 in testing.
For at least a decade, residents of Guayama have believed that they are seeing higher rates of health problems including cancer, heart, and respiratory diseases caused by exposure to coal ash. In this community, 10% of the people have cancer, 25% have respiratory problems, and over half have heart disease. These are unusually high rates.
This is the site of Puerto Rico’s only coal-burning power plant. The plant produces 300,000 tons a year of coal dust. There is an open heap of coal dust — 602,000 tons of it — near the power plant. It is exposed to the weather, and it is believed to be contaminating the groundwater.
Coal dust can include heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury. The coal dust is mixed with water to produce Agremax, a coal ash byproduct, which is then used like concrete to build roads.
However, recently the coal ash from Guayama has been shipped to Georgia, where it goes into landfills.
In 2014, the EPA classified Agremax as non-hazardous solid waste. It was allowed as a fuel in Puerto Rico only if it could also be used for building projects, in what is called “beneficial reuse.” This is the path that brought about Agremax roads in the southern part of the Island.
Following Hurricane Maria and again after Hurricane Fiona, levels of flooding are thought to have caused serious contamination of groundwater in the area. No testing took place after Hurricane Maria.
Coal ash is a toxic byproduct created when coal is burned to produce electricity. It contains dangerous heavy metals, including arsenic and mercury. Physicians for Social Responsibility list coal ash as a risk for cancer, kidney disease, heart and lung disease birth defects, and nervous system disorders.
The Organization EarthJustice reports that 91% of coal ash sites show contamination of groundwater above the acceptable EPA levels. The planned testing will determine whether Guayama is among these dangerous sites.