Coal ash from U.S. blamed for Dominican town's birth defects

Miami HeraldNovember 6, 2009 

ARROYO BARRIL, Dominican Republic -- Maximiliano Calcano is 2 and was born with no arms.

"When I was pregnant, I was dizzy, vomiting and could barely walk,'' said Maximiliano's mother, Anajai Calcaño, 20. ``My tooth cracked and fell out. Then my baby was born like that, without arms. Nothing like that had ever happened here before.''

By "before,'' Calcaño means before a U.S. power company's coal ash arrived at a nearby port, sitting there for more than two years.

She lives in a small wooden house with no indoor plumbing in a rural village in northern Dominican Republic, not far from where coal ash generated by Virginia-based AES Corp. wound up at the edge of the sea. More than 50,000 tons of coal ash laden with heavy metals was left at a port abutting local homes for years while the company, politicians, prosecutors, environmental activists and bureaucrats argued -- and residents got sick.

It has been six years since a contractor from Delray Beach, Fla., brought the black dusty residue to the province of Samaná, and three years since the ash was cleaned up. Several civil lawsuits and criminal cases later, just when everyone thought it was over, the other shoe has dropped.

A civil lawsuit filed Wednesday in Delaware charges that toxic levels of waste dumped at the Arroyo Barril port has made people nearby sick. After years of repeated miscarriages, women whose blood levels show abnormal levels of arsenic are giving birth to babies with cranial deformities, with organs outside their bodies or missing limbs.

The case highlights the debate over coal ash, an unregulated byproduct of coal energy, which when processed and recycled is used in everything from cement to the foundation for golf courses. Popular Mechanics magazine this month calls a concrete made from coal ash one of the ``10 Most Brilliant Products of 2009.''

The ash, a concentrated form of naturally occurring contaminants, is what is left over from burning coal for power. It usually contains arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium and nickel. But as towns in Tennessee and Maryland clean up massive spills of the substance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is poised to rule on whether it should be classified as hazardous -- which would be a tremendous blow to influential power companies that have long lobbied against such a classification.

Coal recycling is big business. Some 131 million tons was used in 2007, up from less than 90 million tons in 1990, The New York Times reported.

Wednesday's suit against AES seeks unspecified compensation for seven clients and medical monitoring for the entire neighborhood.

TERRIBLE TALES

Arroyo Barril's stories are startling. Altagracia Maldonado keeps her grandchild's deformed fetus in a jar for safekeeping. Her neighbor, Maribel Mercedes, gave birth to a two-headed baby who died after a few hours. Daniela Altagracia, a 5-year-old, is going bald.

``Last year in November, there were four cases of children born deformed,'' said Eduard Ortíz, the town doctor. ``In one month, I saw two ectopic pregnancies -- when the baby is in the fallopian tubes. You see one today, another tomorrow, and start to ask yourself, `What's happening?' ''

Ortíz whipped out his cellphone to show his photo of a baby he delivered that afternoon. The grainy picture showed a grossly misshapen face.

The Dominican Republic's new strict abortion law forces mothers to carry to full term, even if sonograms show the fetus has no brains, Ortíz said.

"It was alarming,'' Ortíz said, noting that his own wife miscarried before their first child was born two years ago.

WASTE BROUGHT IN

The alarms started ringing here in 2003, when 10,000-ton barges showed up at the port loaded with black rocks.

The rocks were the moistened residue from a coal-burning plant in Puerto Rico owned by AES. The Puerto Rican government was pressuring AES to rid the island of the mounds of ash that had stockpiled, so AES hired Delray Beach contractor Roger C. Fina to get the ash off its hands.

"He brings this rock ash into the country without any kind of controls or anything. A good portion of it fell to the sea,'' said Andrés Chalas, the Dominican Republic's top environmental prosecutor. "They got permissions to bring it in and said it was to do renovations of the port, but we investigated and there was no such project, not at Public Works or the Port Authority.''

Chalas said the Dominican Republic wants Fina to face charges that he illegally brought pollutants into the country and dumped them on the shore. Although accusations flew that Fina bribed officials to let the material in, no such charges were ever filed, Chalas said.

Fina says the case ruined his life.

"We came in there with 10,000-ton barges and went through Immigration, Customs, the environment folks, permits, everything,'' Fina told The Miami Herald. "They acted like we brought it in the middle of the night.''

The ash was supposed to be processed for what's called "beneficial use'' such as asphalt and shipped to Fort Lauderdale, Fina said.

"It was supposed to be a 90-day turnaround,'' he said. "But it was right in the middle of a presidential election, and it became such a political hot potato that there was no controlling it. They shut us down. They killed me. It was never supposed to sit there for two years.

"Why didn't someone clean it up?''

Fina said he lost everything in the deal and is out of work. He and AES were sued by the Dominican Republic in federal court. AES paid $6 million to clean up the site and settle the claim.

The same year, Fina was accused in a civil lawsuit of luring workers to America with promises of working on his vessels, only to hold them in slave-like conditions at a quarry.

Fina said the vessels were stalled because of the rock ash case, and so employees who were put to work doing something else tried extorting him. The case was settled.

"It was the worst time in my life,'' Fina said. "I thought it was over.'' He insists he was never notified of charges pending in the Dominican Republic.

Coal ash is filled with metals, but not anything that would make people sick, Fina said.

Héctor René Ledesma, the former deputy environment minister -- still fighting to overturn a six-month sentence -- agrees.

``In the settlement with AES in Virginia, the government of the Dominican Republic agreed that the material wasn't toxic and it did not hurt anyone. So what are we talking about?'' Ledesma said. ``Health statistics in that area are exactly the same as they were in past years. Unfortunately, we live in a country with a lot of health problems and deformities, so there is really no telling what is causing those problems.''

Prosecutors criminally charged Ledesma and two other officials for allowing the ash into the country.

He said he was acquitted in that case, but in a civil case brought by environmental groups, he was sentenced to six months in jail. His sentence was suspended.

Lab tests by Greenpeace International showed that the material was safe, Ledesma said.

``I have a Ph.D. in environmental science and natural resources from the University of Florida,'' he said. ``I defended myself with the only weapon I have: the science.''

For its part, AES declined to answer specific questions on the case.

``A lawsuit filed by the Dominican Republic on fly ash was settled in early '07,'' AES spokeswoman Meghan Dotter said in an e-mail. ``Pursuant to the settlement agreement, the Dominican Republic stated that the material was not harmful to humans or the environment or otherwise, but that the material should be handled properly.''

Diane Paolicelli, an attorney for the residents, said lab results that showed the ash was safe were taken from samples hand-selected by AES and did not come from the beach. And the report from Greenpeace showing contamination levels were normal also said clean samples did not rule out toxicity elsewhere.

Lab results from engineers hired by the plaintiff's attorney will show the soil -- even today -- has contaminants that are several times higher than they should be, Paolicelli said.

THE CASES MOUNT

Robert Vance, who filed the suit with Steve Phillips of Levy Phillips & Konigsberg in New York and Ian Conat of the Bifferato law firm in Wilmington, Del., sent medical experts to the town.

``Over 1,000 people got sick,'' said Vance, who accompanied The Miami Herald on a visit to the area. ``We tested 42 people, and more than half of those tested had abnormal, unsafe levels of arsenic in their blood.''

For now, they are representing only severe cases, although he said hundreds complained of rashes and allergies.

Among the clients is María Rosa Andujar, who gave birth to a deformed child who died last year.

``The baby's lips were all cracked, and he died after half an hour,'' Andujar said. ``All these problems we are having is something new that came after the rock ash. If it was because of that, then we need to resolve this because it's important. I'm eight months pregnant, and I'm nervous.

``I think this town is contaminated.''

Chalas, the prosecutor, acknowledges that his office and the Health Ministry did not investigate early reports of skin and breathing problems.

``It wasn't the focus at the time,'' he said. ``We were focused on the environmental impact, and nobody ever did the studies necessary. Thinking about it now, we could have done more.''

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