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SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson has been lauded for her Puerto Rico aid initiative while sitting on the board of a coal company poisoning Puerto Ricans.

SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson and the mountain of coal ash at her company’s Guayama plant (Source: Johnson’s Twitter feed and CPI)

While State University of New York (SUNY) Chancellor Kristina Johnson has been collecting plaudits for the “SUNY Puerto Rico Task Force” she created to assist with relief efforts after the 2017 hurricanes, people on the island have been exposed to carcinogenic waste produced and disposed of by a coal power company whose board she sits on.

In addition to serving as the chancellor of the SUNY system of universities, Johnson is a member of the board of directors of AES Corp, a power company that has dumped millions of tons of toxic coal ash in landfills and other sites around the country. Johnson was paid $275,840 for her service on the AES Corp board in 2017 and owns more than $2.5 million in stock.

AES Corp has been the subject of intense protest as the company has disposed of millions of tons of coal ash containing carcinogenic and toxic compounds in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, leaving a wake of death and disease and prompting major community resistance.

Notably, one goal of Johnson’s SUNY Puerto Rico Task Force is to “develop an action plan that enhances the long-term sustainability and vibrancy of Puerto Rican society as defined by residents of Puerto Rico,” according to a SUNY School of Environmental Science and Forestry blog post. AES – which pays Johnson more than ten times Puerto Rico’s median household income every year – has been directly undermining that goal for years by burning coal for electricity and leaving the people of Puerto Rico to deal with its waste.

AES Corp in Puerto Rico and the Struggle Against the Ashes

The struggle against AES’s coal ash waste currently revolves around a new regulation that will allow for its use in construction projects, but the battle to protect the environment and the health of communities has been ongoing for more than decade.

AES Corp is a Virginia-based international energy company operating in 15 countries. The corporation’s relationship with Puerto Rico dates to 1994, when it entered its first power purchase agreement with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA). However, it was not until 2002 that its presence was felt by residents from the south of the island, when AES opened a coal-fired power plant in the town of Guayama. The waste from this plant has impacted the health of communities not just around Guayama, but around Puerto Rico and as far away as the Dominican Republic.

After the plant came online in 2002, AES started shipping much of its coal ash from Puerto Rico to dump in Arroyo Barril in the Dominican Republic, pursuant to a stipulation in its contract with PREPA that prohibited dumping the waste in Puerto Rico. A spike in respiratory problems, skin allergies, and abortions and miscarriages due to fetal malformations in the area soon followed.

In the meantime, AES was also accumulating coal ash at its plant in Puerto Rico and disposing of the waste all around the island. More than 400,000 tons of coal ash is piled in a mountain at the Guayama plant and another estimated two million tons have been deposited elsewhere on the island, ostensibly used as fill in construction projects. However, the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI) and La Perla del Sur report that multiple outdoor, uncovered deposits of coal ash have been documented. A further one million tons of coal ash is simply unaccounted-for.

Guayama and nearby towns of Santa Isabel, Arroyo, and Salinas had some of the highest rates of cancer on the island between 2004 and 2014. Those towns are where AES moved the bulk of the coal ash used in Puerto Rico – as fill for residential and commercial construction projects under the name Agremax – according to CPI and La Perla del Sur.

As long as AES has been operating in Puerto Rico, it has faced popular opposition. Community members in Arroyo Barril in the Dominican Republic organized to put an end to AES’s dumping and sued the company over its impacts on their health. Residents of Peñuelas in southwest Puerto Rico blockaded trucks shipping coal ash from the plant to their local landfill in 2017 after AES and PREPA amended their contract to permit the company to dispose of the waste in landfills.

Currently, the focus of resistance is a piece of legislation signed in 2017 by Governor Rosselló that ostensibly banned the dumping of coal ash in Puerto Rico, but crucially left a carve-out for using the waste as construction material.

The Kristina Johnson connection

Kristina Johnson has been a member of the board of directors of AES Corp from 2004 through today, with a two year absence from 2009 through 2011 during the time that she served as Under Secretary of Energy in the Obama administration. She has also served on the board of Boston Scientific Corp and is currently on the board of Cisco Systems. Johnson’s background is as an optical engineer.

Johnson sits on the AES board’s compensation committee and chairs its innovation and technology committee, which is responsible for assessing risks related to the technologies the company deploys. In 2017, AES reported compensating Johnson with $275,840 in cash and stock. Johnson’s 151,151 shares of AES stock were worth $2,593,751 at the close of the market on February 11, 2019.

The SUNY board of trustees appointed Johnson as SUNY chancellor in 2017. In that role, she has been commended for the SUNY Puerto Rico Task Force, an effort to “channel the significant expertise, service and generosity of the broad SUNY community to meet the needs of a Puerto Rican community.” The task force has included student volunteers from SUNY Maritime, SUNY ESF, and SUNY Albany assisting with clean-up and rebuilding; medical school staff from SUNY Stony Brook assisting Puerto Rican medical professionals; and an ongoing Puerto Rico Assistance Recovery Legal Clinic run by SUNY Buffalo law school. The effort also permitted Puerto Rican students displaced by the hurricanes to qualify for in-state tuition at SUNY campuses in the 2017-18 academic year.

On a July 2018 junket to Puerto Rico, Johnson posed for photographs installing small solar panels on a community center in Cayey “to demonstrate how communities can benefit from a portable, reliable energy source.” Her company’s coal power plant and its mountain of hazardous waste in Guayama, less than ten miles away, were not featured in any promotional materials.

While the show of solidarity with the people of Puerto Rico from SUNY’s students, faculty, and staff is noteworthy and indeed laudable, the actions of Chancellor Kristina Johnson’s company are in direct opposition to SUNY’s aim to “help build safer, more sustainable, and resilient communities in Puerto Rico.”