State and federal lawmakers are speaking out against a recent decision that allows a private corporation to dump up to 650 million pounds of coal ash from Puerto Rico at an Osceola County landfill this year.
It comes after mounting public outcry over the decision — which appeared as a last-minute walk-on item approved without public comment or discussion by Osceola County Commissioners April 1.
Soto condemns coal ash shipment
U.S. Congressman Darren Soto (D-Kissimmee) released a statement Thursday afternoon in opposition to the upcoming coal ash shipments.
“I encourage the county commission to reverse course on its decision,” he said.
Soto has also requested a review of the matter from the U.S. House Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change as well as the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Congressman — whose district includes all of Osceola and part of Orange counties — was not notified about the importation prior to approval.
La Rosa “concerned” about coal ash
The rushed amendment between Waste Connections and the county unsettled some local residents, who sought answers from state lawmakers like Mike La Rosa (R-St. Cloud).
“My office has been getting a lot of calls,” La Rosa said Thursday. “As a St. Cloud resident, I’m concerned with potential toxic material traveling through our town on a routine basis.”
Like Soto, La Rosa was not notified prior to approval, as the coal ash agreement only involved the entity in Puerto Rico and Waste Connections with final approval by the county.
La Rosa said rural communities near the landfill like Holopaw already experience poor air and water quality, noting that “adding another layer without input from the citizens is concerning.”
La Rosa said he wants to be assured by the Florida DEP that this specific shipment of coal ash is safe.
Environmental protection and local leaders say it’s safe
Meanwhile, local leaders — including County Commissioner Fred Hawkins Jr., whose district includes the landfill receiving the coal ash — maintain that the material is safe and tested to ensure it is non-hazardous before it ever leaves the island.
“We would never allow anything to come in that would harm our citizens,” Hawkins said at a meeting Monday.
Coal ash is the powdery substance that remains after burning coal, and can take the form of fly ash, bottom ash and so-called scrubber sludge. The EPA classified the material as non-hazardous in 2014. But according to its website, coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic that - without proper management — can pollute waterways, ground water, drinking water and the air.
Double-lined landfills, like the JED Solid Waste Facility east of St. Cloud, are the safest way to dispose of coal ash, said Ashley Gardner, media and external affairs for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Central District.
“Coal ash disposal is a highly regulated activity,” Gardner said. “Federal and state regulations include requirements for proper management and disposal to ensure protection of both ground and surface waters, and public health.”
Gardner also noted stringent monitoring and an early detection system to ensure groundwater is protected.
Puerto Rico begins exporting coal ash to Florida
Laws are strict in Florida, but coal ash regulations in Puerto Rico were lax for many years. In 2017, the governor of Puerto Rico banned coal ash dumping on the island after multiple protests erupted over pollution concerns at unlined landfills. In April, he signed another law to completely phase out coal-based energy production by 2028.
Recently, the island’s only coal-based energy producer — Applied Energy Services (AES) — began exporting the material to Florida ports, according to Omar Alfonso, a reporter with the Puerto Rico Center for Investigative Journalism and editor of the weekly newspaper La Perla del Sur. Alfonso has written extensively about AES and coal ash in Puerto Rico since 2016.
Alfonso and his colleagues have tracked about 100,000 tons of coal ash shipped to Florida so far this year.
The first recent shipment went to Jacksonville, where a third-party company transported it by train to a landfill near Georgia.
After that, Alfonso tracked shipments to a port in Manatee County south of Tampa Bay. Hawkins said April 23 that’s where Osceola County’s shipment of coal ash is coming from.
Waste Connections – the private owner and operator of the JED landfill — is set to import 65,000 to 325,000 tons of coal ash from Puerto Rico this year.
That amount “Is a number that makes sense to me,” Alfonso said. AES creates about 20,000 tons of coal ash on the island each month, so 325,000 tons would be more than a year’s worth of waste.
There’s also a massive 90-foot tall pile of coal ash byproduct sitting at the AES plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico that the company is trying to eliminate, Alfonso said.
“And that mountain is about 400,000 tons,” the journalist noted.
Waste Connections officials have refused to confirm how much the contract with the company in Puerto Rico is worth.