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Controversy Heats Up Over Waste-To-Energy Plant

Medical Association warns plant would pollute environment


September 2, 2004
Copyright © 2004 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

Critics of the waste-to-energy plant proposed for Caguas took to the offensive last week, outlining a litany of alleged environmental threats posed by the plant. Others have called the criticism premature since the project’s proponents haven’t even submitted an environmental impact statement.

The Puerto Rico Medical Association’s Environmental Health Committee said the plant would pollute the air with dioxin, produce hazardous waste that Puerto Rico is unequipped to handle, and pollute water resources.

Other experts have come to the defense of the project, saying that it ought to have a chance to demonstrate what effect, if any, it would have on the environment. "An environmental impact statement hasn’t even been submitted," said Agustino Ruiz, former president of the College of Engineers. "What basis does anyone have for making these kinds of statements?" Ruiz said the problem of Puerto Rico’s shrinking landfill space has become increasingly acute and that all proposed solutions to the problems should be examined.

According to Tomas Hernandez, member of the Medical Association’s Environmental Health Committee, the plant would emit dangerous levels of the toxic dioxin. Mark Augenblick, CEO of Caribe Waste, the company that proposed to build the plant, said the gasification process to convert garbage to gas doesn’t produce dioxin; burning the gas to produce energy does–just like any power plant–but the dioxin levels are well within Environmental Protection Agency standards, said Augenblick. "It is only a fraction of what is produced by every one of [the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority] power plants," he added.

Hernandez, however, said the power plant built by Caribe Waste parent company, Interstate Technology, in Karlshrue, Germany produces hazardous waste that must be buried in salt mines. "What would we do with this kind of hazardous waste in Puerto Rico?" said Hernandez. Frank Campbell, a Caribe Waste engineer, admitted that the plant produces the byproduct zinc concentrate, which is considered hazardous waste. Though he said he doesn’t know how the plant in Karlshrue disposes of the waste, Campbell said Caribe Waste plans to sell the zinc concentrate to buyers in Florida who recycle the zinc and lead it contains.

Hernandez also alleged that the plant would discharge polluted water into the Rio Grande de Loiza. Since the plant would be located upstream from Lake Carraizo, San Juan’s principle source of potable water, the pollutants would end up in drinking water, said Hernandez. Augenblick flatly denied that the plant would discharge any water. "The plant’s design doesn’t even have a discharge pipe," he said. The gasification process does use large quantities of water, which would be taken from a waste-water treatment plant, but it is all evaporated in the gasification process, said Augenblick.

Augenblick also addressed allegations that the Karlshrue plant would close at the end of the year because of environmental problems. He said the plant may close, but only because the plant’s parent company made the business decision to concentrate on generating electricity.

Meanwhile, some environmentalists have questioned the plant on grounds that it is an inefficient use of resources and runs counter to the government’s multimillion-dollar recycling effort. University of Puerto Rico environmental science professor Jose Molinelli said recycling and reuse of solid waste is the most economically and environmentally sound way to deal with solid-waste problems. Gasification plants should be considered only after all possible materials have been recycled.

Hernandez said the Medical Association has been seeking out stateside recycling companies to come to Puerto Rico to offer their services. The government had trouble reaching the goal of recycling 35% of the island’s solid waste. The goal has been pushed back on two occasions and is currently 2006. The island’s recycling rate is around 13%.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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