Energy Answers Arecibo is a New York-based waste-management company that is looking to build a 2,100-ton incinerator just outside the city of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and it is seeking funding from the Federal Government.
The company is requesting millions of dollars from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS), a federal agency that provides support for infrastructure in remote areas. By arguing that the incinerator will be built in a rural area in Puerto Rico, Energy Answers has asked RUS for a loan that it says could cover up to 75 percent of the cost of the US$750 million project. If approved, it would be the first federally funded incinerator in the United States in 30 years. Here's the catch: The proposed site is less than 5 miles from the urban center of Arecibo, a city with a population of nearly 100,000 people.
U.S. Representatives Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), and José Serrano (D-NY) have all opposed the project and have asked to meet with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to discuss the matter. In his letter on Sept. 3, Gutiérrez denounced the waste-to-energy incinerator and emphasized, “This is not the alternative energy project that the ‘Island of Enchantment’ needs.”
“Arecibo, Puerto Rico, a region that is poor and whose population is mostly comprised of ethnic minorities, is home to a number of polluting industrial facilities,” Velázquez and Serrano affirmed, the same day. “The people of Arecibo deserve investments that will improve their quality of life, not contribute to its deterioration.”
The proposed incinerator threatens the environment, health, and economy of Puerto Rico. On one hand, the incinerator would use 2.1 million gallons per day of water from Caño Tiburones, Puerto Rico’s most important wetland reserve. The island currently faces a severe drought and cannot afford to redirect water to an incinerator when it could serve 21,000 families instead. Arecibo is also home to the island’s milk industry. Contaminants from the incinerator could decimate one of Puerto Rico’s few remaining agricultural industries. On the other hand, over 420 tons of toxic ash will be generated and released into the surrounding neighborhoods each day, further complicating residents’ respiratory health problems. Finally, the incinerator project will also aggravate the island’s economic crisis by increasing the cost of waste disposal and precipitating the municipalities’ bankruptcy.
In response to these risks, opposition to Energy Answers continues to grow on the island. Over the last five years, more than 30 organizations have come out against the incinerator including Madres de Negro, Ciudadanos En Defensa Del Ambiente, Sierra Club, Basura Cero, Colegio de Médicos de Puerto Rico, Escuela de Salud Pública, Cambio Puerto Rico, Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño, Unión de Trabajadores de la Industria Eléctrica y Riego, and so many others. On Aug. 20, at the most recent public hearing with RUS about Energy Answers’ Environmental Impact Statement, many of these organizations expressed their complete and total oppostion to the incinerator.
This multi-sector opposition has organized under the umbrella of the Coalition of Anti-Incineration Organizations in Puerto Rico and they recently sent a formal complaint to Secretary Vilsack opposing the requested financing for the project, and protesting how RUS conducted the public hearing.
“RUS staffers were not Spanish-speaking and did not provide for simultaneous translation, which generated the sensation that they were not interested in what the attendees had to say,” the letter reads. “Homeland security guards, including one with a sniffing dog, seemed totally inadequate and offensive to the attendees, like the participants could be suspected of terrorism or drug dealing ... This was very intimidating and caused some attendees to leave.”
The coalition has also asked local courts to revoke the permits that have already been approved by local agencies. The group has filed suits against Puerto Rico's Environmental Quality Board and the Planning Board.
A member of the public, denounces the proposed Energy Answers incinerator project during a public hearing on Aug. 20. | Photo: Coalition of Anti-Incineration Organizations
On Sept. 30, Energy Answers suffered another setback when the Mayors Association of Puerto Rico – which represents 60 percent of Puerto Rico's municipalities – voted unanimously to pursue legal action against the Puerto Rican Solid Waste Management Authority (ADS), which has been accused of building a monopoly for the incinerator. ADS signed a contract with Energy Answers on June 29, which would force all municipalities to transport their waste to the incinerator to reach the 2,100 tons of waste per day. According to this contract, Energy Answers will charge US$36 per ton for the trash, an amount that doubles the current US$18 per ton of landfills. The Mayors Association argued that this new charge will cost millions of dollars a year and therefore sued to invalidate the contract.
The Mayors Association also expressed its opposition to the project at RUS’s public hearing stating.
“Financial assistance to Energy Answers should be denied by RUS in absence of sound and credible information to draw conclusions on the economic feasibility of the project, particularly when the municipalities of Puerto Rico, with their respective wastes and tipping fees, are not willing partners in this project and will not support with their municipal funds Energy Answers’ loan payment capacity,” the association stated in a joint letter.
“Please be certain that this undesirable incineration project is destined to fail,” it said.
During the public hearing, the Coordinator of the Coalition of Anti-Incineration Organizations Myrna Conty called on U.S. residents to pay attention to the project.
“If awarded funds, it will set a precedent for Energy Answers and similar companies to ask for federal funds to build additional incinerators throughout the continental US,” she said. “This is not an issue restricted to the island of Puerto Rico but one that also pertains to people in the U.S..”
Enrique Gonzalez Conty is a member of the Coalition of Anti-Incineration Organizations in Puerto Rico. He is also an Assistant Professor at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY. The Coalition is asking supporters to sign their petition against federal funding for Energy Answers as well as participate in the current comment period on the Draft EIS at RUS, between now and Nov. 12. For more information on the Coalition visit prohibidoincinerar.org, join Prohibido Incinerar on Facebook, or follow the movement on Twitter through @prohibidoincine.