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This story is part of a 12-part investigation by the Chicago Investigative Project in the graduate program at the Medill School at Northwestern University.
A hulking coal plant on the southern coast of Puerto Rico provides a substantial chunk of the island’s power. It burns coal that has crossed the Caribbean from a vast strip mine in Colombia.
Along with power, the plant produces 300,000 tons of toxic coal ash each year. The ash has wreaked havoc in the region, contaminating groundwater in the Puerto Rican town of Guayama, possibly contributing to cancers and other illnesses among locals.
Coal ash flooded agricultural fields during Hurricane Maria and it’s an ongoing concern in a hurricane-prone region where Hurricane Fiona is inundating the island with heavy rainfall, causing mudslides and immense damage.
The ash was also shipped to the Dominican Republic, where it was dumped and used as building material until residents of the Arroyo Barril neighborhood saw increasing cancer and plummeting birth rates, and the Dominican government banned the importation.
Through laws passed in 2017 and 2019, the Puerto Rican government essentially prohibited the storage of coal ash on the island.
So now, barges take the ash across 1,300 miles of ocean to a private port terminal in Jacksonville, Florida, and then on to a landfill in Georgia. Last year a barge spilled toxic ash into the coastal waters, and local authorities and environmentalists say that’s just a preview of the havoc the ash could cause, especially in a hurricane-prone area. They want the coal ash barred from their waterways and roads, but their hands are largely tied by lack of jurisdiction over the private port, Keystone Terminal. They have trouble even obtaining information about coal ash shipments and the environmental and health risks they might pose.
Coal ash 101: Everything you need to know about this toxic waste
As coal plants close nationwide, they leave behind nearly a billion tons of toxic coal ash. The Medill School of Journalism spent months investigating the coal ash threat and how regulators, companies, and environmental groups are handling it.
Here are the basics that will help you understand this looming threat.
What is coal ash?
Coal ash is the toxic byproduct of burning coal to generate electricity. It contains heavy metals that can contaminate groundwater, lakes, and rivers.
Where is coal ash located?
Coal ash is stored in more than 700 ponds and landfills nationwide, most of them unlined. Ash can also be recycled — known as “beneficial reuse” — in which it is used to make concrete or build roads.
What is the Coal Combustion Residuals (CCR) Rule?
In 2015, the EPA established rules for coal ash units, requiring companies to test groundwater, remediate contamination, and make plans to close the units. Companies have to post groundwater monitoring data and closure plans online.
The rule excludes hundreds of “legacy ash ponds” that closed before the federal rule took effect in 2015, yet these ponds are still causing serious groundwater contamination. The rule also does not cover coal ash that was over decades dumped and scattered around coal plant sites and even surrounding areas, often used to build up berms or fill in land.
Is coal ash contaminating our water?
Data posted by companies shows that contaminants around coal ash ponds frequently exceed limits set by the EPA, sometimes exponentially. Private wells used for drinking water can be and have been contaminated by coal ash. Rivers and lakes used for recreation and municipal water supplies can also be contaminated by coal ash.
What’s in coal ash?
Boron is linked to reproductive problems like low birth weight and is also toxic to aquatic life.
Lead is a potent neurotoxin linked to swelling of the brain and nervous system damage.
Lithium is linked to liver and kidney damage as well as neurological diseases and birth defects.
Arsenic is linked to nervous system damage and higher rates of cancer.
Molybdenum is linked to gout, high blood pressure, and liver diseases.
Cobalt is linked to thyroid damage and blood diseases.
How is a coal ash pond closed?
Coal ash sites need to close after getting their final shipment of coal ash, if they are polluting groundwater above certain standards, or if they fail to meet other safety criteria. The rules say all unlined ponds needed to stop accepting waste by April 2021, though some requested exceptions and have continued filling with coal ash.
A protective cover is placed over the coal ash so rainwater doesn’t get in and cause flooding or increased leaching into groundwater. If the coal ash is left in contact with groundwater or permeable rock, it can continue leaching contaminants even when capped.
Coal ash is excavated from a pond, dried, and moved to a lined landfill above the water table. Companies may be able to build a landfill on the power plant site. Shipping coal ash to landfills off-site means heavy truck traffic or shipping by barge or rail.
Who pays for coal ash cleanup?
The owners of coal ash sites — utilities or power companies and their shareholders — can pay the cost of coal ash cleanup, often hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars across multiple sites.
Utilities can seek approval from state public service commissions to bill the cost of coal ash cleanup to ratepayers. They can even seek a profit as a portion of the costs.
If coal ash is designated a Superfund site, the EPA can make the responsible parties — utility or power companies — pay for the cleanup. The government can also pay for the cleanup from a pool of Superfund money, especially if the companies no longer exist or can’t pay.
Compiled by Sruthi Gopalakrishnan.
Applied Energy Service (AES), which owns and operates the power plant, holds a contract with Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority until 2027, meaning Jacksonville will likely see coal ash coming in for at least five more years. In Guayama, AES piles about 602,000 tons of coal ash in an unenclosed staging area, exposed to Caribbean storms. Inhalation of and exposure to coal ash can cause health problems including heart and lung disease, cancer, and risks to fertility. It has been well documented that fugitive dust from coal ash piles has blown onto schools and residential areas during storms in Puerto Rico. Keystone Terminal similarly holds the coal ash in an uncontained storage site.
Since the coal ash staging area of Keystone sits near the St. Johns River, if a hurricane were to rip through Jacksonville, river pollution is almost certain, advocates and local officials say.
“Why are we taking this toxic waste from Puerto Rico that is outlawed?” said Jacksonville Waterways Commissioner Marc Hardesty.
Coal ash from Puerto Rico has been coming through Jacksonville since at least 2016.
When shipments arrive at Keystone Terminal in Jacksonville’s port, the ash is moved by a crane to the open-air storage pile until it is picked up by commercial trucks. In the distance, crane jibs loom above the St. Johns River, shipping containers stack tall and piles of aggregate construction materials look like mountains. When the sun hits just right, shadows stretch onto the bustling waterway. The scene conveys the industrial strength of Jacksonville — a city built upon the shoulders of its maritime infrastructure.
This industry has caused plenty of pollution over the years, but the coal ash represents a confounding threat — similar to ones faced by other towns as companies and regulators struggle to figure out how to handle almost a billion tons of coal ash stored nationwide.
On March 22, 2021, a 418-foot barge carrying coal ash crashed into jetties at the mouth of the St. Johns River amid stormy seas. For roughly two months it stayed there while emergency response teams assessed the damage and conducted tests. Then in mid-May, after the barge’s position shifted during bad weather, hatches covering the cargo blew off, spilling an estimated 9,300 tons of coal ash into the ocean.
The Jacksonville Port Authority, or Jaxport, called for banning coal ash from moving through publicly owned ports on the St. Johns River. But it found its hands largely tied, since the authority has little jurisdiction over the private port tenants — like Keystone Terminal — that occupy the port.
The port authority knows coal ash is being imported, but it’s hard for the authority to get information about it from AES or Keystone. Neither entity is required to submit transport manifests about what material they bring in or ship out, nor does Jaxport keep a list of commercial users of the harbor.
“The lack of knowledge of what was passing through our waters is, to me, a major problem,” said Ellen Glasser, mayor of nearby Atlantic Beach and a former FBI agent.
After the 2021 spill, Atlantic Beach passed a resolution banning coal ash, and Hardesty proposed the Jacksonville Waterways Commission should do the same.
It took over a year for the commission to receive an incident report from the U.S. Coast Guard. Meanwhile, the report remains confidential, so the public and even local officials still don’t know the extent of the pollution caused by the spill.
Robert Birtalan, chair of the waterways commission’s incident review committee, was provided the unredacted report by the U.S. Coast Guard. Birtalan said during a May 26 waterways commission meeting that “every single page of that report was stamped” with a notice banning it from public release.
“So basically, ‘Here is everything you want to know, but you can’t talk about,’” he said.
“I found that to be nothing less than extremely concerning and certainly questionable at best,” said Hardesty.
The lack of transparency only exacerbated local officials’ and environmental leaders’ concerns about coal ash being shipped through their waterways and communities. The St. Johns River Keepers, Surfrider Foundation and Sierra Club are circulating a petition demanding the Jacksonville City Council pass an ordinance to protect the health of community waterways.
“We are seeing this relocation of pollution, putting not only our river at risk, but putting citizens at risk,” said Lisa Rinamin, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, “whether it’s for their jobs or their quality of life or health, or their food.”
A journey across the Caribbean
The open source database MarineTraffic shows that between July 7, 2021, and Aug. 24, 2022, five tug boats — the Baltimore, Mary Ann Moran, Allie B, Helen and Marion Moran — have guided 30 barges from Guayama to Jacksonville. While the database does not specify what the barges are carrying, local environmental advocates say the Guayama port has long been used to export AES’s coal ash, and it is the only material shipped out of the port.
Collectively these barges are capable of carrying hundreds of thousands of tons of ash, and it is unknown exactly how much has been transported over the years. MarineTraffic operates as a paid subscription service — it is not cheap. Accessing up to a year’s worth of historical data can cost hundreds of dollars.
The MarineTraffic data — collected from transponders on vessels — shows that the vast majority of vessels leaving Guayama go either to other ports in Puerto Rico, Jacksonville, or Santa Marta, Colombia. Puerto Rican investigative journalist Omar Alfonso, who has reported on the coal ash transport for years for La Perla del Sur and Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, said he’s determined that the barges are traveling empty back to Santa Marta to pick up more coal from Colombia. Coal ash cannot be stored elsewhere in Puerto Rico, so that would indicate that all the coal ash from the Guayama AES plant is headed to Florida.
As of 2021, Keystone receives roughly a quarter of its annual revenue from importing coal ash from AES, a clear financial incentive to keep bringing in the toxic material. For 17 years the private terminal — now spanning 180 acres — has operated in the heavily industrialized section of Jacksonville known as Talleyrand.
Pollution from the Keystone Terminal presents a risk to residents living in the Talleyrand area. The facility brings in millions of tons of bulk materials including wood chips, gypsum, limestone and coal ash each year, said Bill Harris, a representative for Keystone Properties, during a Jacksonville Waterways Commission meeting in November 2021.
There are no enclosed facilities on Keystone’s property, and when driving past the private terminal one can see piles of aggregate material that stand hundreds of feet high, ready to be blown away by strong winds or spread by rain.
“Any stormwater … any rainfall that hits that pad goes into a vault,” promised Harris during the 2021 waterway meeting. “There is an overflow lined pond — that if we had a 100-year storm or more — then that same water that would touch the coal ash would go to that vault and also the overflow from a lined pond.”
Keystone has not responded to requests for comment about the current status of coal ash storage or the run-off vault, nor about the safety equipment — if any — provided to employees or contractors handling the coal ash on a daily basis.
Although Keystone claims it wants to get rid of the ash as fast as possible — Harris describes the terminal as a “mere pass-through” for the material — it can remain in piles for months.
During a public waterways meeting, Keystone said it sprays imported materials with water to tamp down dust, but it is not always successful as seen in videos taken by Hardesty. This reporter saw plumes of gray dust billowing out of a clamshell crane as it transported the ash, drifting in the wind across the private terminal and into the river.
Trucking to Georgia
Not only is coal ash sitting in an uncovered pile on Keystone’s grounds, but the immense number of heavy trucks each day that ferry coal ash 50 miles to Georgia’s Chesser Island Road landfill expose locals to dangerous diesel emissions.
On a balmy spring day, this reporter watched plumes of diesel exhaust spew from the trucks barreling through an industrial stretch of the city where unpruned trees shade distressed homes, boarded-up businesses, and wooden marinas weathered by time and salty Atlantic water. The trucks were dusted in a powdery film of gray particulate that accumulated in small piles on their bumpers, which at times fell off when the trucks reached rural highways. Although these vehicles are supposed to be fully covered when in transit, some were not.
Rural residents along the trucking route are concerned. In Callahan, a northern Florida town with less than 1,500 people, 60-year-old Doug Hewitt has seen firsthand the problems that these trucks and their cargo create. A former water operator for Jacksonville Electric Authority, he has lived in Callahan for nearly his entire life.
“For about the last four years, five years, we had hundreds [of trucks] a day coming right in front of my house,” Hewitt said. “It was at least six days a week. I mean nonstop … I don’t know how the landfill’s not full.”
He said that even though the trucks are required to be covered, he’s seen partially covered ones with chunks of material flying out on the road.
“It falls out all the time all over the place,” Hewitt said.
When asked how he knew what he was looking at was coal ash, Hewitt said, “I just know … from what I’ve seen in those trucks, it all appears to be the same color, kind of a grayish color.”
How coal ash funds a small county in Georgia
For every ton of coal ash that enters Chesser Island Road Landfill, Charlton County receives compensation that goes to its annual general operating budget. In 2019, the landfill received 839,669 tons of coal ash, according to an annual report.
According to Charlton County’s projected revenue report for 2021, the town’s total annual revenue was expected to be just over $12 million. Waste Management, the operators of Chesser Island Road Landfill, paid the county $2.8 million, about 23% of its entire general fund.
Hampton Raulerson, the Charlton County administrator, said residents are not pleased with the presence of the landfill nor the coal ash entering the county limits, but “when they realize the economic benefit that it provides to them and the county, they’re not quite as upset.” The county has 12,766 people, and the median household income is $42,743.
The St. Mary’s River runs less than 2 miles away from the landfill, and stretches roughly 130 miles through southeastern Georgia and Northeastern Florida.
Emily Floore, the St. Mary’s Riverkeeper, is as concerned as her St. Johns River colleagues about coal ash contamination in the waterways.
“Coal ash has a lot of heavy metals that come with it, so as Riverkeeper, we just want to make sure that it’s not making it into the tributaries into the St. Mary’s River, [and] it’s not impacting the residents that are downstream of those tributaries,” Floore said.
On a typical afternoon back on the St. Johns River, fishing lines cast off bridges into the St. Johns River, jet skiers launch off small wakes of recreational boats and children cling eagerly to inflatable tubes, waiting for open water, while tugboats navigate behemoths full of toxic material beside them.
These activities are at risk of being suspended if a coal ash spill were to occur directly in the waterway. It could involve overlapping circumstances: another Florida hurricane, a drowsy tugboat operator, a miscalculated nautical judgment, or a combination of all three. If coal ash continues to come into Jacksonville, it is not if another spill or disaster occurs, as many see it, it is when.
“There is a reason I would assume that Puerto Rico said, ‘We don’t want it anymore,’” Hardesty said. “It’s bad stuff.”