This past January, Itiba De Jesus moved to St. Cloud, in Osceola County, Florida, in search of affordable housing and land to expand her sustainable agriculture project. She has lived in Florida for 17 years but grew up in Puerto Rico. After Hurricane Maria wiped out crops across Puerto Rico, she co-founded a community garden to help groups on the island and nearby Orlando grow their own food. Then she got word that thousands of tons of ash containing toxic metals from Puerto Rico’s Guayama coal plant were headed for her new home.
Seeing the same source of contamination travel from one of the places she calls home to another “felt like a double whammy,” said De Jesus.
Osceola County in central Florida is home to the second fastest-growing Puerto Rican community in the country. Many of the transplants living there today were still finding their footing after the devastation of Hurricane Maria when the county broke the news earlier this year that it would be taking on thousands of tons of coal ash relocated from the U.S territory. The coal ash is a byproduct of a power plant operating in Guayama, Puerto Rico, which provides 17 percent of the island’s electricity.
For years, residents near the Guayama plant have called for the plant’s operator, the Virginia-based Fortune 500 Company AES Corporation, to clean up its act, as the heavy metal-laden ash can contaminate local soil and water. In Puerto Rico, the coal ash pits contributed to unsafe levels of boron, lithium, molybdenum, selenium, and sulfate in groundwater, according to a recent analysis by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project.
Puerto Rico banned the dumping of coal ash in 2017, so AES needed to find somewhere else to send its waste. This spring, the JED landfill — located in a rural area of Osceola County — agreed to take that coal ash for $2 a ton. Around 44,000 tons have already been delivered and a total of 200,000 could arrive by the end of the year, according to a white paper distributed to the media by the County Commissioner of Osceola, Fred Hawkins. 05-16-19
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