Incinerating the Future: Austerity Crisis Threatens Wetlands and Economic Opportunity in Puerto Rico

Last month on our blog we introduced you to Sierra Club de Puerto Rico, where our newest chapter is in solidarity with allies on the Island of Enchantment in the fight against economic austerity. The pressure from Congress to repay decades-old debts to international financiers is putting Puerto Ricans in the impossible position of having to sacrifice the incredible natural beauty that makes our island so special.

Nowhere is this more clear than in Arecibo, a municipality in the north coast of Puerto Rico with a population of about 90,000 residents and 171 square miles. The biggest wetland system in Puerto Rico, the Caño Tiburones, is located in Arecibo and is home to over 125 species of birds. This wetland system is crucial for local fishermen, hunters and the local tourist economy. Arecibo has also two forest reserves, including the sub tropical Rio Abajo forest reserve where a population of the critically endangered Puerto Rican parrot has been monitored for years. The town of Arecibo is also the host of cave systems and cultural sites such as the Arecibo Observatory, once the largest radio telescope in the world.

Despite all this natural beauty, biodiversity and the economic benefits from tourism that this special place draws, Arecibo is at risk. A private waste management company wants to build a trash incinerator there that would burn 2100 tons of waste per day. Trash burning incinerators not only produce greenhouse gas emissions but also toxins such as lead that affect human health. Emissions from incinerators are loaded with CO2, acid gases and nanoparticles of heavy metals like lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic and chromium. Proponents of the plant argue that it will help both to solve Puerto Rico’s waste disposal challenges and supply energy to the island, but incineration is one of the most expensive and polluting ways to address waste, as well as one of the most expensive and polluting ways to produce electricity. The proposed plant in Arecibo will generate only 77 megawatts of energy per day, only 2% of the total energy consumed daily in Puerto Rico. This plant would not convert waste to energy - it would just be a waste of energy.

2013 march against Aricebo incinerator

2013 march to stop Arecibo incinerator

Just like every other government action or social policy in Puerto Rico today, the roots of this proposal can be traced back to the austerity crisis. The Arecibo incinerator is being given priority for economic development under Congress’s PROMESA law, which takes control over decision making away from local authorities and puts it in the hands of an unelected board of financial managers. At the same time that the Financial Oversight and Management Board of Puerto Rico is funding this polluting, pointless incinerator, other public needs like schools and hospitals are being cut. But local communities are fighting back.

Since the proposal to build the incinerator the Arecibo community has organized against this trash burning hazard. Local groups formed an Anti-Incineration Coalition and have managed to slow construction of the proposed incinerator. The company proposing the incinerator, Energy Answers, needs to drain up to 2 million gallons water a day from the Caño Tiburones wetland system in order to operate the incinerator. Wetlands are complex systems that are needed to ensure water quality and are habitat to many species. Draining them would be detrimental to the health of the island’s ecosystem. The local Natural Resources Department denied their request to drain water, declaring that the wetland does not have enough water to be drained. Now the company is struggling to identify a cost effective source for their water needs.

Rally at the entrance to the Arecibo incinerator site, April 2017

Rally at the entrance to the Arecibo incinerator site, April 2017

Though as an island nation, Puerto Rico faces unusual challenges with waste disposal, incineration is not the answer. Incinerators are not compatible with recycling or composting systems since they need waste to keep working. It is a reality that the solid waste issue in Puerto Rico has reached a breaking point due to the production of more than five pounds of trash daily per person. The lack of access to recycling and composting alternatives forces people to send materials to landfills. Most of the waste in Puerto Rico ends up in landfills that are poorly managed and nearing their tipping point.

Around the world, people’s movements are declaring trash incineration an outmoded method of waste disposal and moving toward zero waste.  When the manufacturing process and our lifestyles minimize waste generation, we don't need landfills and incinerators. Puerto Rico’s financial crisis provides an opportunity for new recycling, composting and zero waste industries to create jobs and sustainable management solutions. In 2015 Puerto Rico banned single-use plastic bags, an important step toward reducing landfill waste. Those who support austerity and debt repayment by any means necessary may try to force this polluting incinerator on Arecibo, but local communities in Puerto Rico are building toward a different vision of the future: a future with zero waste and greater economic opportunity for all.