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This week, we’re sharing new reporting from Energy News Network reporter Kari Lydersen, who traveled to Puerto Rico as part of our collaboration with the Rural News Network to share the stories of south coast residents who’ve been fighting toxic coal ash contamination for decades.
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.
More clean energy news
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