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ENVIRONMENT BULLETIN-PUERTO RICO: Community Takes Up Environmental Fight

Carmelo Ruiz

GUAYAMA, Puerto Rico, Aug 15 1998 (IPS) - Community activists and a major labour union have joined forces to fight the government’s plans to place a coal-powered energy plant in this quiet town on Puerto Rico’s southern coast.

The power plant, to be built by the US-based AES Corporation, will provide 413 megawatts, ad will cost 700 million dollars.

The Union of Electricity and Irrigation Workers (UTIER), which represents employees of the state-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, is arguing that the AES power plant represents the beginning of the privatisation of electricity generation in this US territory.

It also claims that the establishment of the plant will mean the introduction of a non-unionised workforce into this sector of the economy.

To the environmentalists, the project means irreparable harm to the area’s ecology. According to South Against Pollution (SURCCO), a Guayama-based grassroots organisation, the AES plant will emit sulfur dioxide, which causes asthma, emphysema and lung hemorrhages; as well as almost 5,000 kilogrammes of dioxin-laden soot a day.

The group estimates that after 30 years, the plant will have created enough toxic ash to cover an area of 1.6 square kilometres,10 metres deep.

SURRCCO claims that the plant will use 30 million litres of water a day, which the area’s lakes and rivers can ill afford to provide. Its members are also concerned about acid rain.

The Barrio Jobos ward of Guayama has been chosen by AES as the location for its power plant. It is one of the poorest wards ofGuayama, which is itself one of Puerto Rico’s poorest municipalities.

Barrio Jobos is a socially isolated community, with its own slang, and with its own public square, as if it were a municipality in its own rght. Its unemployment rate is higher than Guyama’s, which is itself above the Puerto Rican average.

“AES chose Barrio Jobos precisely because of its extreme poverty,” charges SURCCO spokesperson Ismael Muller. “They assume that they can take advantage of that community’s economic desperation to push their power plant.”

Barrio Jobos already has pollution problems. It hosts an industrial park with 11 industrial facilities, including a hilips Petroleu refinery, and pharmaceutical factories owned by ICI, Baxter and other corporations. It is estimated that 57% of the community’s residents suffer from respiratory diseases – six times the Puerto Rico average.

Guayama ranks second in the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory for Puerto Rico. The island’s southern area also suffers from the pollution generated by currently existing power plants.

“More than 70% of Puerto Rico’s electric energy production comes from the south coast, resulting in a disproportionate amount of contamination from the thermoelectric plants”, says environmental consultant Sarah Peisch.

The Ramona Mendoza public high school, located in Barrio Jobos, closed 150 times in five years because of air pollution. Since 1990, 34 of its teachers have reported pollution-related illnesses to the PR State Insurance Fund. The school operates with the permanent presence of an ambulance and paramedics on campus.

Both AES and the EPA claim that Barrio Jobos and Guayama are not particularly economically underprivileged and that therefore tere are no environmental justice issues involved in the coal plant’s siting.

However, Peisch claims that the EPA based its analysis on aggregated data, a statistical tool often used to hide pockets of low income communities. The US government agency engaged in “a superficial and erroneous analysis consisting of census data for the entire municipality of Guayama”, she says.

According to SURCCO, AES and its allies are engaged in a full- fledged propaganda campaign. The company provides uniforms and funding for local sports teams and helps poor families with their medical expenses.

The environmentalists also claim that local news media are victimised for carrying stories that mention SURCCO and that EAS would usually withdraw its advertising from such media houses. Two years ago, the transmitter of a local radio station that interviewed coal plant opponents was sabotaged.

In addition, the Guayama police also face claims that they constantly harasses SURCCO members, and municipal employees have reportedly been seen ripping off ati-AES flyers from public places.

SURCCO works closely with the Puerto Rico labour movement and participates in its struggles. The organisation participated in the July 7-8 general strike against the government’s privatisation policy.

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