A leading Puerto Rican chemist is calling a recent move to import thousands of tons of coal ash to Central Florida “immoral,” as public outcry over the decision mounts.
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 65,000 to 325,000 tons of coal ash from Puerto Rico between now and Dec. 31.
The request was approved unanimously, without public inputor discussion from county commissioners.
The decision has both locals and experts in Puerto Rico crying foul. A growing number of Osceola residents are questioning why the county would agree to take on so much waste from Puerto Rico, while experts from the island are also reaching out to share their own concerns.
‘It shouldn’t be dumped in someone else’s backyard’
Osvaldo Rosario is a doctorate professor in chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico with a specialization in EPA Environmental Chemistry and more than 35 years of research experience.
He says importing coal ash makes him concerned – especially for the groundwater and people living near the landfill.
“There’s a world of evidence out there concerning the toxicity of coal ash,” he said. “I have seen it here and I have lived it here.”
Rosario’s tracked the devastating health and environmental tolls improper coal ash disposal took on his native island for years. He says a recent move to export the toxic substance to Osceola County is no real solution and comes only after escalating pressure on the government to get it off the island.
“If Puerto Rico is generating coal ash, it shouldn’t be taken and dumped in someone else’s backyard,” said Rosario, who also serves as a consultant to the Federal Food and Drug Administration. “It’s something I’ve always criticized.”
He thinks the only safe place for the ash is in a hazardous landfill, and points to growing scientific research that the burnt residue generated from coal power plants is toxic – despite statements from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) stating otherwise.
A better way to test toxicity?
The EPA determines if a material is hazardous using a test developed in the 1970s that is no longer the gold standard.
A substance is considered harmful if it leaches chemicals, like arsenic or selenium, above a certain threshold. The agency uses what’s known as the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) to test that.
“But this only tells part of the story,” Rosario said. “It’s not effective for measuring the true content of toxic material in the ash.”
The EPA’s Office of Research and Development determined in 2012 that the test does not fully predict the true toxicity of all coal ash. When EPA used a newer, more accurate Leaching Environment Assessment Framework (LEAF) test, the results far exceeded the hazardous waste threshold, the report found.
That’s because LEAF uses different pH levels to simulate a variety of possible conditions.
“For example, lead ions don’t dissolve at the same pH as arsenic ions,” Rosario said. “Varying the pH at different times leads to the extraction of a greater range of toxins.”
Teresa Hartney, a local chemist with 11 years of experience in the environmental testing industry, agreed with Rosario’s conclusions.
“TCLP inadequately addresses potential contamination risk because it is not representative of real-world conditions,” said Hartney, a Kissimmee resident.
Using LEAF – which has been adopted in place with stricter environmental standards like California and Europe - reveal toxicity levels up to 100 times greater than the standard TCLP test, Rosario said.
Lined-landfills are safer – but still worrisome, scientist says
Coal ash destined for Osceola County is headed to a modern, double-lined landfill called JED Solid Waste Facility – not stored in open ponds and mounds like it is in Puerto Rico.
That’s less worrisome, but both scientists say they still have concerns.
“As they’re dumping this in the landfill, clouds of fly ash are raised and travel long distances,” Rosario said. “If you have communities nearby, they’re going to be constantly exposed to this ash powder.”
Rosario and Hartney were both skeptical of “frequent and stringent” groundwater sampling tests conducted by FDEP officials.
“As a scientist, my concern with the current coal ash shipment is the potential for contamination of our aquifer,” Hartney said. “if current regulations are followed, whether contamination occurs or not, we may not be made aware until our water supply is compromised to the point that restoration is unlikely.”
Denied test results for incoming coal ash
Meanwhile, local government officials, including County Commissioner Fred Hawkins Jr., continue to claim the material is safe.
“We would never allow anything to come in that would harm our citizens,” Hawkins said during a May 6 meeting.
Hawkins – whose district includes the JED landfill – has over 20 years of experience in the solid waste industry.
According to a conflict of interest form, Hawkins abstained from the April 1 contract amendment because his family receives royalty payments from Waste Connections.
The commissioner insists that the ash is tested before it ever leaves Puerto Rico to make sure it is non-hazardous.
But when the Osceola News-Gazette requested those test results from Waste Connections last week, company officials refused to release them.
“The State does have access and can request from us at any time,” wrote Damien Ribar, division vice president of Waste Connections. “We will not release the test analytics to the public.”
Both Hawkins and Ribar described each other as old friends during recent interviews.
A representative from the FDEP also did not supply test results last week.
“JED is providing those results to the Department,” wrote Ashley Gardener, public affairs and media relations for FDEP Central District.
A mega-development across from the landfill?
The nearest community to the landfill is Holopaw, a sparsely populated, rural collection of homes in east Osceola County. The homeowner’s association treasurer wrote in an email to a resident that about 487 newsletters are sent out every month and may reach an estimated 1,000 to 1,450 total residents.
But that is likely to change.
Under one of the biggest land development plans ever approved in Florida in 2015, a tract more than six times the size of Manhattan is set to transform Orange and Osceola counties by adding half a million people to the area over the next 50 years.
The nearest urban center of the massive Mormon church-owned Deseret Ranch is set to be about five miles from the JED landfill.
“Right here at 441 is going to be the southern entrance to the development,” said Holopaw resident John Holcomb. “It’s going to be right across the highway.”
Holcomb has lived in Holopaw over 30 years and is familiar with the landfill causing controversy in his community since it opened in 2004.
Still, he says he was surprised to hear about the latest coal ash approval.
“It was shady how that agreement was done, how they snuck it on the agenda like that,” he said. “I’m definitely going to keep an eye on this and see what happens.”
Hawkins is set to host a media press conference today to discuss the non-toxic nature of the incoming coal ash.
Stay tuned to the Osceola News-Gazette and our on-going coverage of this developing story.