Residents packed the Osceola County chambers Monday afternoon demanding local officials halt incoming shipments of coal ash from Puerto Rico to a private landfill.
But with barges docked in Manatee Bay and more on the way, it may be too late.
Coal ash controversy concerns united over two dozen people who delivered more than an hour of public comment Monday afternoon. Speakers spanned racial and cultural lines. Liberal environmentalists from Winter Park sat beside rural St. Cloud natives; Puerto Rican mothers and grandmothers spoke out in opposition alongside scientists and Congressional representatives.
“We’re all in this together,” said Adella Lopez, a native of the Boggy Creek area and president of an Orlando-based Hispanic civic engagement group. “This is not just a Puerto Rican issue…it effects all residents.”
On April 1, Osceola County government gave a green light to Waste Connections – the private owner and operator of the JED Solid Waste Facility east of St. Cloud – to import an unlimited amount of coal ash from Puerto Rico between now and Dec. 31.
The county stands to make $2 a ton from Waste Connections through the deal, officials said. It is unknown how much Waste Connections is receiving from Applied Energy Systems (AES) - the coal production company in Puerto Rico - because the company refuses to disclose numbers.
The request was approved unanimously, without public input or discussion from county commissioners.
The Osceola News-Gazette broke the story May 3 and word spread quickly across social media.
Health and environmental concerns topped the list of talking points Monday, with residents rebuking claims that coal ash is non-toxic, despite JED’s status as a non-hazardous landfill.
Others argued that importing coal ash might be legal, but not ethical.
Even a representative from U.S. Congressman Darren Soto’s office gave comment in opposition to the decision, calling for a longer-term commitment from all elected officials to phase out coal-based energy production.
Ethical concerns were also raised about Fred Hawkins Jr., the county commissioner who abstained from the April 1 vote due to strong personal ties to Waste Connections.
Hawkins disclosed on a conflict of interest form that he abstained because his family profits through landfill royalty payments.
Waste Connections has also donated to his past political campaigns, including most recently in late March to fund his State House District 42 run. Hawkins also worked at the JED landfill for years and maintains friendships with many solid waste industry officials.
Since the story broke, Hawkins has spoken to residents and the media about incoming coal ash more than any other county commissioner – despite abstaining from the vote.
“I’m disappointed to see a public elected official seem more like a press secretary for AES and Waste Connections,” said Phillip Arrero, of Lake Mary, who spoke on behalf of his father, a Kissimmee resident.
Murky government transparency and uproar over a lack of public comment on April 1 dominated discussion.
“We were not made aware that it was going to be added to the agenda that day,” said Kenansville resident Vanetta Crawford. “Because if we had, I would have been here.”
Resident after resident asked the county to repeal their decision. It was the single point that united nearly everyone.
It only takes one board member to propose a vote. County Commissioner Peggy Choudhry took up the motion.
Choudhry said she was told by County Manager Don Fisher that incoming coal ash was safe during a short debriefing involving numerous other consent agenda items last month.
But the commissioner said she’s researched coal ash and spoken with numerous citizens since then.
“If I had that information in front of me then, I would have voted no,” she said.
Roars of applause erupted in the chambers following Choudhry’s proposal to repeal the April 1 decision.
But elation turned to discontent as County Attorney Andrew Mai explained the legal bind local government now finds itself in with Waste Connections.
“To get out of that contract,” Mai said, referring to the amended April agreement, “we would need to get their (Waste Connections’) consent.”
Waste Connections was not allowed to import coal ash from out of state until the county allowed them to do so by amending their contract that day.
Now, the county can’t stop them.
Mai explained that the termination agreement permits the county to end the practice in three years – a moot point since coal ash shipments are only approved until Dec. 31.
The other option is a mediation process – but Waste Connections will still need to willingly halt shipments.
The news did not sit well with Choudhry.
“But I was told three votes could always change decisions,” she said.
Not in this case, the attorney explained.
With hands tied, Choudhry made a motion to take action on what little the board could legally do – send a letter to Waste Connections asking them to consider a halt to coal ash importation from Puerto Rico.
The motion passed 3-0, with Hawkins abstaining and Brandon Arrington absent.
Residents gathered outside the chambers to voice frustration after the vote. Many vowed to continue fighting the decision.
“We’re not going to let this disappear,” said local resident Mikala Wells, who sported a “No coal ash in our trash” T-shirt. “There must be something we can do.”
A few hours later, residents in Holopaw began posting photos of industrial dump trucks heading to JED landfill. Mounds of uncovered material crested the top. The substance had a gray, ash-like appearance.
UPDATE: On May 15 - two days after the meeting - media received a copy of the letter sent by County Commission Chair Cheryl Grieb to Waste Connections’ corporate office in Texas.
The letter “respectfully” requested the company cease shipments of coal ash to the JED landfill immediately.
Waste Connections had not issued a response by 6 a.m. May 16.