More than half a billion pounds of coal ash is set to get dumped in Osceola County this year.
Yes - that’s billion with a B.
It’s being shipped from Puerto Rico, where repeated citizen protests over coal ash disposal methods spurred the passage of a 2017 law barring any ash dumping at island landfills.
59,090 elephants worth of coal ash
A newly amended agreement permits the disposal of up to five cargo ships - each containing roughly 65,000 tons of coal ash - at a rural landfill in east of St. Cloud from now until Dec. 31.
That’s 130 million pounds of imported coal combustion residue per ship, or 650 million pounds total, said Osceola County officials. That’s the rough equivalent of 2,708 train car loads or 59,090 elephants.
Coal ash is the by product of the combustion of coal at power plants run by electric companies. Although the Environmental Protection Agency classified the material as non-hazardous in 2014, the EPA website notes that coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic that - without proper management – can pollute waterways, ground water, drinking water and the air.
Once the approved shipment arrives to Florida, it will be trucked to an expanded landfill called JED Solid Waste Facility near the community of Holopaw east of St. Cloud.
Officials say the site, which opened in 2004, has always accepted coal ash and that the material meets all environmental standards and won’t be harmful to the area.
“It is thoroughly tested before it ever leaves the island,” said Damien Ribald, division vice president of Waste Connections - the private company that owns and operates JED landfill. “We’re monitored by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, we have random inspections and they visit our facility unannounced.”
Experts agree that double-lined landfills like JED are the safest way to dispose of coal ash. But other questions have arisen – like why such massive amounts are coming from Puerto Rico now and how much money is wrapped up in this deal.
A smart business move?
There are big dollar signs behind the agreement – both for local government and Waste Connections.
Osceola County receives $2 per ton to host out-of-state debris, meaning local government stands to make between $130,000 and $650,000 from Waste Connections with this deal, depending on the number of ships imported.
That’s a smart business move, said Fred Hawkins Jr. who sits on the County Commission that approved the amended agreement with Waste Connections April 1.
Hawkins’ district includes the JED landfill and the commissioner has worked in the solid waste industry for over 20 years.
“This is a way for the county to generate some revenue while making a smart agreement with a strong local business partner,” Hawkins said.
Ribald declined to answer any questions about the contract hashed out between his company and the entity in Puerto Rico, citing confidentiality issues.
“We protect our customers’ information,” he said.
Waste Connections became aware of the coal ash purchasing opportunity through its sales team, which markets available landfill space across the United States, Ribald said.
Waste Connections underwent a competitive bid process to win the contract with the Puerto Rican entity – which Ribald also refused to name. He said doing so might jeopardize future opportunities to import more coal ash from the island.
Last-minute county approval
The contact amendment between Waste Connections and Osceola County appeared as a last-minute addendum item April 1.
Any items that miss the agenda cut-off are added to what’s known as an addendum by the county manager or his staff, said Public Information Officer Andrew Sullivan.
No seperate public hearings were held, and it was approved in-bulk alongside 35 other non-related items. No discussion from county commissioners took place prior to approval.
Any waste imported from out of state must get the green light from the Osceola County Commission first, said County Public Works Director Danielle Slaterpryce. That’s the only reason the item appeared on the addendum at all.
That makes residents like Loret Thatcher, who lives about nine miles from the landfill, concerned.
“I faithfully check the agenda when it is published to see if any item is a concern to me,” said Thatcher, a resident of Holopaw since 2006. “These last-minute addendums are extremely unfair since it doesn’t give any of us the chance to plan to come and voice our concerns.”
Coal ash spills and lined landfills
Thatcher and other residents’ fears and concerns about coal ash aren’t entirely unfounded.
Three of the largest coal ash spills in United States history took place between 2008 and 2014, causing widespread environmental and economic damage to waterways and properties.
The spills occurred at coal production plants, where the ash was being stored – not in landfills.
In 2015, in response to public outcry, the EPA cracked down on national regulation standards for how ash from coal-fired power plants must be handled, tested and disposed of. In fact, in Eden, N.C., where 39,000 tons of Duke Energy coal ash spilled into the Dan River in 2014, ash collected during clean-up was sent to a double-lined landfill.
Lined landfills – like the JED facility - are endorsed by the EPA for coal ash storage. While no landfill is perfect, these facilities are preferable to keeping ash in unlined ponds or mounds that can leak, said John Schert.
Schert is a professor who has studied trash disposal and best practices for over 30 years, including as director of the Hinkley Center - a statewide research team funded by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and hosted at the University of Florida.
“We haven’t seen any leaks or water containments from lined landfills,” Schert said. “And they’re the standard now.”
Schert said liners are durable, and there’s no reason they would degrade over time.
“But nobody knows for sure,” he said. “They’re thoroughly tested though, and should last a very long time.”
The only exception might be if a natural occurrence took place, like a sinkhole under the liner or a massive earthquake, Schert said.
Although lined landfills are generally safe, Schert noted that 650 million pounds of ash is still massive, adding that he hasn’t heard of any other Florida counties importing this much of the to mainland landfills – yet.
When asked if Waste Connections has ever agreed to accept this large of a coal ash shipment from one group, Ribald said he would need to research it.
“It wouldn’t be fair for me to say yes or no,” he said.
Coal ash to cover trash?
Coal ash will be placed in its own designated area once it arrives at JED, according to Ribald.
“It’s handled and treated separately,” he said. “It requires a slightly different handling process with different equipment.”
But he noted that the ash could be utilized for other purposes, including to cover trash each day.
A thin layer of what’s known as fill or cover material is laid over trash at landfills to keep debris compressed. Sand is often used, but coal ash is cheaper and denser, Schert said – and it’s approved in Florida for this use.
Hawkins – a self-described long-time friend of Ribald – commented on Facebook and in emails with residents that the ash will likely be used as daily cover at JED.
Schert said that if Waste Connections carefully monitors the quality of leachate – or coffee-colored liquid garbage run-off - it’s safe to use coal ash this way.
“The liner will catch any leachate that contains coal ash,” Schert said. “But the wastewater facility where that leachate is sent to be processed needs to be able to handle it.”
Ribald says it is.
Puerto Rico’s problems with coal ash
The EPA may consider coal ash non-hazardous, but in recent years, Puerto Rico has seen the many devastating consequences of improper disposal and monitoring.
Applied Energy Systems (AES), the multinational energy giant that uses mineral coal to generate about 17 percent of Puerto Rico’s power supply, has come under fire for depositing ash in the island’s southern region.
Due to the lax way it was disposed of, ash found its way into the water systems, reduced air quality and increased overall pollution and health risks.
The practice sparked multiple protests, including one that barred trucks carrying coal ash from entering a landfill in the town of Penuelas, according to a July 2017 Associated Press report.
The public outcry moved Puerto Rico’s governor to sign a law two years ago banning ash from being deposited in landfills across the U.S. territory. Last month, he signed another law that will completely phase out the use of coal-generated energy by 2028.
But issues persisted in Puerto Rico, especially after Hurricane Maria hit the island in September 2017.
Last March, AES released a groundwater monitoring report showing that between Sept. 12, 2017, and Oct. 4, 2017, levels of arsenic, chromium and two radioactive isotopes had increased dramatically. The spiked levels happened near a mound of toxic ash at a coal plant that went uncovered when the hurricane hit.
AES’ coal ash disposal methods and public protests have been reported on by major U.S. outlets like the AP, PBS, Forbes and the Nation, along with Puerto Rican news outlets like Centro de Periodismo Investigativo.
Ribald would not release the name of the Puerto Rican entity exporting coal ash to Waste Connections, how much the contract is worth or how long the deal has been in the making.
He added that Waste Connections does not take ownership of the material until it is weighed on scales at the JED landfill.
The Osceola News-Gazette placed a records request with Osceola County April 24 to obtain a copy of Waste Connections’ contract with the entity in Puerto Rico.
Waste Connections had yet to comply four business days after the request was made. On Tuesday, the director of JED landfill threatened legal action against the county.
The records request is now being handled between the county attorney’s office and lawyers with Waste Connections.