Over two-dozen protesters formed outside a landfill in Osceola County Friday afternoon waving “No coal ash in our trash” signs while dump trucks barreled past them along State Road 441.
Tensions have mounted since May 3, when news broke about an agreement to import thousands of tons of coal ash from Puerto Rico to the JED Solid Waste Facility, a double-lined private landfill east of St. Cloud.
The agreement gave Waste Connections, JED’s owner and operator, the green light to import an unlimited amount of coal combustion residue via Manatee Bay in Tampa between now and Dec. 31.
The measure was approved as a last-minute addition to the Osceola County Commission agenda April 1, where it received no public input or discussion from board members.
EPA says coal ash is safe, but people are still concerned
To be clear, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection says the dumping is safe, legal and regulated, noting that the landfill has the proper permits and licenses to dispose of coal ash.
Still, dozens of trucks are hitting the roads, making residents concerned about a lack of transparency and safe transportation.
“There’s toxins in coal ash, even if it’s classified by the EPA as non-toxic,” said Doug Lowe, a Harmony resident. He stood outside with about five other protesters well after the landfill closed Friday. “There’s a lot of concerns we have.”
Coal ash is the by-product of coal combustion at power plants run by electric companies. Although the Environmental Protection agency classified the material as non-hazardous in 2014, the agency’s 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.
Waste Connections officials estimate that at least a 10th of all material entering JED landfill this year will be coal ash. Then again, it could be more.
“No one knows the actual amount coming in and there is no ceiling,” said Osceola County Communications Director Lisa Nason at a press conference May 13.
Are the trucks being covered?
Pictures and video of gray, ashy debris spilling over the edge of trucks entering the landfill Friday were quickly posted online by protesters. One picture, taken by Holopaw resident Jamie Wells, shows a cement-like block a little larger than a fist, sitting by the side of the road as one vehicle after another turned into JED.
Wells, who’s lived in Holopaw for 15 years, said he’s used to dump trucks in his community – and household garbage like plastic grocery bags and Styrofoam takeout boxes that fly off and litter the roadside.
But he’s never seen something like this, he said, and he’s worried it is coal ash.
“They told us these trucks would be covered,” Wells said later that day. “These trucks are coming in, kicking up dust and chunks are flying out.”
Why is coal ash coming from Puerto Rico?
Coal ash has a toxic history with Puerto Rico, where a recent third-party report reveals groundwater contamination levels near the Applied Energy Systems plant in Guayama at four to 14 times higher than maximums allowed by the EPA.
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 Power Authority (PREPA). 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 PREPA is good until December 2027. Many now wonder if AES will continue coal production or make the Puerto Rican government pay it to transition to natural gas production.
How is the coal ash getting here?
Omar Alfonso, an investigative journalist and editor of La Perla del Sur in Puerto Rico, has covered AES and coal ash for years. He and his team tracked three boats that departed Mareas Bay in Guayama between April 2 and 26 headed to the Port Manatee in Tampa Bay with about 80,000 tons of coal combustion waste.
The cargo was transported twice on the Mississippi Enterprise vessel and once on the Mary Ann Moran barge tugboat.
The first of the three shipments left Puerto Rico just a day after Osceola County commissioners green-lighted Waste Connections to receive out-of-state coal ash at the JED landfill, Alfonso noted in a May 13 article.
From port, it is traveling via truck to the JED landfill in Osceola County.
According to records of maritime activity reviewed by La Perla del Sur, during 2018 AES Puerto Rico shipped about 150,000 tons of coal ash to Jacksonville. This year, another 70,000 tons were exported to Jacksonville between February 22 and March 28.
Response from local government
In response to growing public outcry, Osceola County government sent a letter to Waste Connections’ corporate headquarters in Texas on May 13 requesting the company to halt coal ash shipments immediately.
But the county has no legal authority to stop shipments, so it is unclear what the letter will accomplish.
Waste Connections had not responded to the letter by Monday.