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John Bigalbal, Managing Director of Global Fuel at AES.

What we learned at Monday’s coal ash press conference

Osceola County Commissioner Fred Hawkins Jr. held a press conference Monday to say that coal ash heading to a local landfill from Puerto Rico is non-toxic.

Outcry over a lack of government transparency prompted County Commissioner Fred Hawkins Jr. to call a press conference Monday to discuss an incoming shipment of coal ash from Puerto Rico.

It’s set to get dumped at the JED Solid Waste Facility lined landfill east of St. Cloud.

He was joined by Waste Connections’ officials and representatives from Applied Energy Systems (AES), the coal-based production company in Puerto Rico exporting the material.

No one from the Environmental Protection Agency or Florida Department of Environmental Protection was present at the press conference.

Here’s what we learned.

The amended agreement appeared as a walk-on item April 1 not because the deal was rushed, but because company officials wanted to keep it quiet.

AES has been looking for landfills to dispose its Puerto Rican waste in since at least November, said John Bigalbal, managing director of AES’ Global Fuel division.

“From my perspective, it wasn’t a rush,” he said. “This is a private commercial transaction…I don’t think anyone wanted this to be out in public that AES and JED were about to close a deal.”

Waste Connection can accept as much coal ash as it wants between now and Dec. 31.

“No one knows the actual amount coming in and there is no ceiling,” said Osceola County Public Information Officer Lisa Nason.

The News-Gazette previously reported that between 65,000 and 325,000 tons of coal ash will head to the JED landfill, using information provided by Osceola County Public Works Director Danielle Slaterpryce April 18. This was said to be incorrect information at the press conference.

Officials said they’re likely to accept between 140,000 and 200,000 tons from this job. That’s about 10 percent of annual receipts.

But officials clearly stated there is no cap in the current contract barring Waste Connections from accepting more, as long as it happens before Dec. 31.

Waste Connections can continue shipments if an extension is granted by at least three county commissioners.

AES is exporting the ash and paid Waste Connections to take it.

For nearly a month, Waste Connections declined to disclose the name of the Puerto Rican entity exporting material and refused to comply with a records request made by the News-Gazette in April, citing confidentiality issues.

AES is the only coal fired power plant on the island, and has a contract to sell all electricity it produces to the Puerto Rico Electric Authority (PREA). About 17 percent of all power on the island is generated by AES. Last month, the governor there signed a law to phase out coal-based energy by next year, though AES' contract with PREA is good until 2028. Many now wonder if AES will continue coal production or make the Puerto Rican government pay it to transition to natural gas production. 

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This graph from a recent report by the Puerto Rican outlet, Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, depicts recent groundwater analysis of chemicals detected in an aquifer under a mountain of coal ash at an AES plant in the town of Guayama.

AES has come under fire in recent years for environmental negligence. A report released earlier this year detected levels of chemicals like selenium, lithium and molybdenum in the aquifer under the mountain of coal ash substance (known as Agremax) at AES’ plant in Guayama that were four to 14 times higher than EPA maximum levels. 

JED landfill is not currently taking in coal combustion residue (coal ash) from anywhere else, though it has a permit to do so.

Coal ash from Puerto Rico will make up at least 10 percent of garage JED landfill can accept in 2019.  

According to a document provided at the press conference, the JED landfill has already accepted 44,000 tons of the coal ash load. If it accepts 200,000 tons, it will have used a tenth of its total yearly permitted waste intake on coal ash.

Officials confirmed the substance being imported is Agremax.

Agremax is a mix of mostly coal fly ash along with water, gypsum and calcium oxide.

The company created Agremax because AES’ contract with the Puerto Rican government bars it from storing coal ash on the island unless it has “beneficial use.” That’s why AES began manufacturing Agremax, which was then marketed for roads, construction and other uses.

 It will be wetted down to prevent fly ash dust during transport and at the landfill.

The material will be loaded on to vessels via conveyor belt and wetted with water. It’s wetted again once it arrives at port and leaves the vessel and is put in temporary storage.

“We try to move it as quickly as possible, because in the Florida heat, it tends to evaporate pretty quick,” Bigalbal said. All trucks transporting material will be covered, he added.

Officials said testing of the material is done by an independent laboratory using an EPA-standard test called Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP).

Test results were made available Monday after the News-Gazette was denied access to these results by Waste Connections officials last week. When asked why this happened, Nason replied: “It is now a public record now that we are in possession.”

Officials say the material won’t blow around if it’s used to cover trash each day at the landfill, because Agreacts like cement when water is added.

Additional water will be added at the landfill, Bigalbal said.

Waste Connections does not have to disclose any financial information about business contracts because it is a private company.

Hawkins abstained from voting April 1 due to a conflict of interest (his family receives royalty payments from Waste Connections) but says neither he nor his family still own landfill property.  

He also said his family member is paid for certain waste streams coming into the landfill but isn’t sure if coal ash is one of them. JED landfill owners have donated to Hawkins’ political campaigns since he first ran for office in 2008, he noted.

Here's what else we learned from Monday's coal ash press conference.