From Peñuelas to Standing Rock

By: Carlos Borrero

The recent arrests of some 40 protesters in the area of Peñuelas, Puerto Rico, a small town on the southern coast of the US colony, brings to light yet another example of environmental degradation and indifference to the collective health of the poor which characterizes the capitalist profit system.  Protesters were arrested last week as they attempted to block over 50 trucks loaded with carbon ash (Coal Combustion Residuals or CCRs) destined for a landfill managed by the Alabama-based company EC Waste located on the outskirts of Peñuelas.  The carbon ash is generated at a coal-fired electric power plant located in Guayama, a town on Puerto Rico’s southeastern coast, owned by the Virginia based Applied Energy Services (AES) and currently operating under a 25-year contract to sell energy to the highly indebted Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA).  The Guayama plant, which generates about 15% of Puerto Rico’s electricity, was listed in 2011 by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) as one of the ‘dirtiest’ within US jurisdictions.  Carbon ash from the coal-fired plant is legally deposited in at least two other landfills on the island and several other locations have been identified as illegal dumpsites, including rivers and agricultural land along the southern coast.


The ongoing protests in Peñuelas are a response to the of the existence of heavy metals such as arsenic, boron, chloride and chromium in addition to significant amounts of other carcinogens such as lithium, molybdenum, selenium and thallium contained in the ash.  Residents of several surrounding barrios have denounced the airborne spread of coal ash both during transport and as a result of the downhill winds from the landfill itself.  Incidences of cancer and respiratory illness have spiked throughout the whole southern coast of Puerto Rico in recent years with particularly acute rises around bothPeñuelas and Guayama.  Additional concerns over the leaching of compounds such as hexavalent chromium into aquifers along the southern coast, which supply drinking water to hundreds of thousands, have moved area residents to protest.


This most recent example of environmental degradation has taken place with the full complicity of federal and local agencies, including the EPA and the local Environmental Quality Board (EQB).  Despite municipal ordinances that block the deposit of coal ash, a local appellate court recently sided with EC Waste to allow the resumption of dumping.  The use of tactical operations as well as other police units to remove protesters not only highlights the moral corruption and repressive nature of the colonial state, it all but guarantees that hitherto peaceful protests will turn violent.


While the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons by local police and National Guard forces against the Standing Rock protesters has left the incredulous within the United States in shock, it is a stark reminder of the brutal lengths to which the capitalist state apparatus will go in its defense of powerful business interests.  The people of Peñuelas are certainly aware of this reality and have begun to draw important lessons from the struggle of the Lakota and Dakota Sioux.  However, Standing Rock, which has been described as the moral center in the struggle for access to clean water as well as the fight against climate change and hydraulic fracking, also provides other important lessons on interconnectivity.


Current plans to reform Puerto Rico’s energy infrastructure, which has been historically reliant upon highly pollutant # 2 and # 6 petroleum, have centered on increasing the percentage of so-called ‘clean coal’ and natural gas used for generating electricity.  These plans essentially tie energy production in Puerto Rico to much broader efforts of the US fossil fuel industry as a whole to relieve current overcapacity by securing export markets for shale and tar sands oil, natural gas and coal.  The planned construction of an offshore gas port along Puerto Rico’s southern coast to convert liquefied natural gas shipped from the Gulf Coast and supply the Aguirre power plant highlights just one of the links between North American fossil fuel interests and the US colony.  In the case of the AES plant in Guayama we see yet another example of how industries in historic decline within the centers of capitalism, such as “Big Coal”, so often find new life within the colonial periphery where environmental protection are either nonexistent or routinely go unenforced.


Although there exists competition over domestic market share between different sectors of the US fossil fuel industry, they are all united in the drive to secure overseas markets.  The linking of the Bakken formation to the Patoka oil terminal in via the Dakota Access Pipeline, coupled with current efforts to convert and reverse the flow of the Trunkline Pipeline, which extends from south central Illinois to the Gulf Coast, form part of the infrastructure construction necessary for these efforts.   This growing infrastructure, however, poses significant threats to the collective health and natural resources of the communities where it is constructed.  Water resources in particular have come under increasing threat in such places as Standing Rock and the surrounding communities of the Ogallala aquifer.


Increasingly, environmental activists will have to strengthen national and international networks to coordinate local struggles against the assaults on natural resources and the collective health of communities carried out by the most powerful business interests in their never ending quest for profits.  The struggles around environmental justice, however, cannot be separated from the fight against the capitalist profit system, which relegates the vast majority to a life of precarious living conditions.  The demand for rational economic planning in the interests of the majority is at the same time inconceivable without recognizing of the need for the conscious protection and preservation of the environment.

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