ENVIRONMENT-PUERTO RICO: Citizens Fear Power Plant Tragedy

Carmelo Ruiz

SAN JUAN, Mar 23 1998 (IPS) - The government says it is necessary, environmentalists and union leaders disagree, but as to whose views will prevail is left to be seen.

One thing is clear however, that is, all groups are talking about the future of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) and the construction of two privately-owned plants.

While PREPA and Governor Pedro Rosello deny that privatisation is underway, these groups are not listening.

According to the unions and environmentalists the first of the two new power plants is to be located in the southern coastal town of Guayanilla, and will run on natural gas shipped in from Trinidad and Tobago.

The 670-million dollar facility, which will generate 461 megawatts, will be built and operated by Ecoelectrica, a consortium of the Kennetech and Enron corporations. It is already under construction, much to the dismay of opponents.

The second one is to be located some 50 kms to the east, in the town of Guayama. This plant will run on coal and will be built and operated by Allied Energy Systems (AES). It is expected to generate 413 megawatts.

According to PREPA engineer, Teodoro Rodriquez, at the rate that Puerto Rico’s electricity demand is growing, current generating capacity will not meet the population’s needs by the year 2010.

Based on its own calculations, the state-owned utility company estimates that this shortfall can only be averted by increasing generating capacity by 1,200 megawatts as soon as possible

Union leaders and environmentalists disagree with PREPA’s forecast and dismiss it as an alarmist scenario.

“The Ecoelectrica plant is completely unnecessary and it endangers the environment and safety of Guayanilla’s residents,” says Efrain Emanuelli, one of the most outspoken opponents of the gas-fired plant.

The Guayanilla plant will extract millions of gallons of seawater daily for its cooling system. This water will be desalinised and the salt will be returned to the sea. As a result, salinity levels in the town’s bay will rise abnormally, with adverse ecological consequences, says Emanuelli.

Probably the biggest fear of Guayanilla residents is the possibility of a natural gas explosion at the plant. In November 1996 an underground propane pipe exploded in the urban core of Rio Piedras, a section of Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan, killing more than 30 persons.

The company that supplied gas to Rio Piedras happened to be owned by Ecoelectrica co-owner Enron.

Some fear that the Rio Piedras tragedy would be nothing compared to what would happen if a similar accident occurred at the Ecoelectrica facility.

AES’s Guayama coal-fired facility presents even more serious environmental problems than its natural gas counterpart. “It is absolutely impossible to conceive of coal as a clean source of energy, as AES would have us believe,” says Jose Cordova, chemistry professor at the University of the Sacred Heart in San Juan. Cordova also notes that coal is a major contributor to the greenhouse effect.

The AES plant has yet to receive a permit to begin construction. In fact, the Puerto Rico Supreme Court has stopped the construction for almost two years now, and will allow it to proceed only after the permits have been acquired.

In 1995 the environmental lobby group, Greenpeace published a report on AES, which details numerous cases of environmental destruction and dishonest business conduct on the part of the company.

Enron also has a long history of scandals and alleged corruption. This Texas-based corporation has been accused of influence- peddling and other improprieties in business deals in countries like Argentina, Mozambique and Kuwait.

In a much-contested multi billion dollar power plant deal in Dabhol, India, Enron was repeatedly accused of corruption and foul play.

Environmentalists and the Union of Electricity and Irrigation Workers (UTIER), which represents PREPA employees agree that customers will lose with the construction of these two plants.

They refer to a report PREPA sent to its bond holders in 1995 which says that once construction of the plants is completed the costs will be passed on to customers.

UTIER members fear that the Ecoelectrica and AES plants mark the introduction of a non-union labour force into the electricity business, which will ultimately lead to mass layoffs. They note with great concern that the Ecoelectrica plant will only employ 46 technicians once it is finished.

PREPA plants with similar generating capacity employ at least 10 times that many people.

UTIER spokesman Bartolome Diana says PREPA’s own figures show that in the last five years 776 megawatts were saved by reorganising the power grid and replacing old equipment, and that these savings are expected to keep increasing in the years to come.

He also refers to the recently built 249 megawatt plant in the Cambalache sector of the town of Arecibo.

“That’s over 1,000 megawatts increase in generating capacity, and with conservation measures and the development of renewable energy resources the savings should be much larger. This makes the case against Ecoelectrica and AES even stronger,” says Wilfredo Lopez, spokesman of the local environmentalist group Mision Industrial.

The Cambalache facility was built over the objections and protests of Arecibo environmentalists since PREPA chose to build it in Cano Tiburones, Puerto Rico’s largest and most important wetland. The plant is also located in a flood-prone area.

According to Ismael Muller, of the Guayama-based group South Against Pollution (SURCCO), present economic trends do not support PREPA’s contention that Puerto Rico’s energy demand will rise in the next decade.

“Factories, our biggest energy consumers, are closing down, though the government denies it. In addition to that, the remaining ones are beginning to generate their own power,” says Muller.

As for conservation and the development of renewable energy sources, PREPA’s Rodriguez says that these were carefully examined but discarded for being impractical.

Wilfredo Lopez believes PREPA’s dismissal of these sustainable alternatives indicate a case of severe ecological illiteracy on the part of the people who run the state-owned utility.

The use of coal and gas violate the United Nations’ Climate Change Convention, says Lopez.

“I’m surprised that with so much sea, sun and wind in Puerto Rico, no effort is made to harness them as energy sources. If they’re not currently practical alternatives, as PREPA says, then we must invest in them in order to make them competitive,” says Cordova.

Meanwhile, the Ecoelectrica plant’s construction is being challenged in court by local environmentalists. The plaintiffs charge that by awarding Ecoelectrica the gas plant contract without competitive bidding, PREPA is violating its own regulations, as well as United States federal law. The case is currently in Puerto Rico’s appeals court.

“Since the case is in court, the construction is completely illegal,” says Guayanilla lawyer Rigoberto Gigliotti.

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