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  • Writer's pictureFernando Ortiz

Punta Catalina: Dirty Power

A Case of Environmental Justice, Corruption and Greenwashing in Catalina, Peravia.

The Dominican Republic (DR) is an island-nation located on 2/3 of the island of Hispaniola (1/3 shared with Haiti) in the Caribbean region of Latin America. With one of the strongest economies in the Caribbean, The DR is home to over 10 million people and a hub for tourism in the region due to its beautiful beaches. A small rural town named Catalina within the province of Peravia made national headlines when a thermoelectric power plant was announced within its territory along the southern coast of the island.

In 2013, President Danilo Medina and the Partido de la Liberacion Dominicana (PLD) approved a coal-fired power plant to be built with two identical units each generating up to 375 megawatts- for a total of 752 megawatts of electricity generated. This power plant named Punta Catalina- is the biggest power-generating facility in the country, estimated to supply up to 35% of the total power demand within the DR. Spread across 1.4 million square miles, on land leased by the government for 50 years, Punta Catalina includes "clean-fuel technology" such as two pulverized mineral coal-fired units, coal boilers, air quality control systems, coal pulverizers, air heaters, steam turbine generators and the largest coal-handling port terminal.

Punta Catalina is run by the Corporation of State Electrical Companies (CDEEE) and was built by the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht (yup- that one) in a $2 billion contract. Construction began in 2014 and concluded in 2019. Yet, Punta Catalina has fired up more controversy then energy since its inception.

Lets begin with the juicy part- Corruption. Punta Catalina was approved and financed on a $2 billion contract that has since skyrocketed to nearly $3 billion. The company Odebrecht in the last several years made international headlines when corruption and bribery was discovered with Odebrecht found guilty in bribing politicians in over 12 countries within Latin American and Africa for national contracts or BID's. The U.S Department of Justice found that in the DR alone, Odebrecht spent an estimated $92 million in bribes. Rumors say that prior to 2013, President Medina and other officials met several times with Brazilian politicians and Odebrecht representatives in Brazil and within the DR. Yet, no official arrest have been made in the DR- despite several countries across Latin American imprisioing several politicians for bribery and corruption in relation to the Odebrecht case.

Greenwashing is when something is presented as being "green or sustainable" when it truly isn't- but its made to make you think it is. Punta Catalina exemplifies greenwashing to the maximum in the DR. Labeled as incorporating "clean-fuel technology" (there is nothing clean about fossil fuels- especially coal- the dirtiest of all), Punta Catalina also reports to have a gas emission quality control system to reduce its emissions to those similar to natural gas and to reduce the amount of sulfur dioxide, sulfur trioxide and mercury released into the air. Seawater is said to be used for the cooling of the power plant and sent back to the sea via offshore pipes and an estimated 2 million mahogany trees were planted through a reforestation effort to help mitigate carbon dioxide emissions. Punta Catalina reports 6,400 direct jobs and 20,000 indirect jobs since its construction (with many of these employees being non-Dominicans such as imported Colombians, Mexicans and Brazilians).

The reality is that their is nothing sustainable about thermoelectric coal-fired power plants. Punta Catalina will release an estimated 6-8 million tonnes of CO2 per year into the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change. An estimated 4 million tonnes of coal per year will need to be burned in order to generate the needed energy. The environmental degradation associated with coal power plants are numerous. The release of by-products such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide, mercury, arsenic and particulate matters (PM) are known to contribute to severe air pollution. The use of seawater for cooling purposes to be released again into the ocean will significantly reduce the oxygen supply of those marine ecosystems as the water being returned into the sea will be much hotter- and contaminated. Another waste product of coal power plants is fly ash (recall the piles of ash made famous by the Great Gatsby). Fly ash waste is highly toxic as it contains several heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic and is filled with sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. Already, Punta Catalina has come to the public eye for depositing 400,000 tons of ash outdoors. This practice is highly dangerous as it exposed the ash to the elements- the wind can spread the ash for many miles away and allows the ash to penetrate into the ground and water sources- not to mention human lungs.

And then their is Environmental Justice. The area of Catalina has a surrounding population of about 15,000 people- the majority of which are poor fishermen, farmers and businessmen. In 2015, two environmental organizations; National Climate Change Combat Committee (UNFCCC) and the Environment Protection Attorneys Institute (INSAPROMA) both brought the case of Punta Catalina to court- stating it violated the Environmental and Natural Resouces law known as Ley 64-00 which states that any project that affects adjacent areas but undergo an environmental review and license. The organizations claim that it is "the judges duty to protect the inhabitants of the communities near coal plants from the effects of over 174,000 tons of ash and 14,000 tons of slag produced each year by the power plants." Once again, we see the poor and most disadvantaged being exposed to environmental and health effects that greatly compromise their livelihoods in order to supply the demand of the growing upper classes.

Catalina and surrounding areas experience several blackouts throughout the day and the majority of the inhabitants lack air conditioners and basic electrical appliances. Yet, they will carry the burden so that the rich- 33 miles away in the capital of Santo Domingo can have central air conditioning in their homes. The associated health effects of coal power plants is numerous; respiratory and cardiovascular illness such as asthma and hypertension, cerebrovascular illness, lung cancers, skin disease, damage to the brain, eyes, skin and breathing passages, neurological illness, damage to the kidneys and reproductive health effects such as low birthweight and higher infant mortality.

Exposure to the extensive heat and pollution related to coal power plants not only dramatically increases inhabitants and surrounding community members to toxic substances via the air they breathe, the contaminated food they are eating and water they are drinking- but also increases the burden and challenge of healthcare access and cost. The contamination associated to fossil fuels like coal also highly degrade the environment; increases local temperatures (Catalina is located in one of the most arid and hottest regions of the country with desertification highly increasing), contaminates local farmland making the soil unhealthy and toxic, contaminates local sources of water and destroys marine ecosystems. Recently, the Dominican community has witnessed the effects of toxic waste due to the Duquesa fires (Duquesa is the capitals biggest landfill) with smokes that fogged and contaminated the entire city for days.

Local fishermen have already reported being unable to fish within the area due to the lack of fish- and the effects of agriculture is only expected to rise. Punta Catalina has contracted with the American based company XCoal Energy and Resources to provide 460,000 tonnes of coal which will be imported into the DR. Punta Catalina is coal-fired power plant in a country that has no natural deposits of coal- all of the raw supply to generate electricity must be imported. This in itself places the DR in a position in which is relies on foreign entities and governments to supply its electricity needs. Just a couple miles away is the Parque Eolico Matafongo (Matafongo Wind Park) which produces 34 megawatts of renewable electricity using one of the most abundant and free natural resources- wind.

So, the DR is going to invest billions (money it doesn't have) in a coal power plant and then also have to invest millions to purchase the coal itself (because the DR has no major sources of coal). Ok.

In an area and island known for its beautiful beaches, sun and cold Presidentes- one would expect that the Dominican government invest in energy sources that are renewable and which raw materials are found abundantly within the national territory- but that is not the case. In a world that is moving away from fossil fuels, especially the dirty coal- we have a country investing in the dirtiest form of energy and exposing its already vulnerable and marginalized inhabitants to even greater challenges, contamination and health effects.

As I sit in a rocking chair in my grandparents home in Bani- the neighboring city, on a 98'degree day, with one of the most unbearable heat waves watching the news as President Medina inaugurates the second unit of Punta Catalina- I can only imagine what those near Punta Catalina feel as they see the smoke coming out the power plant. I can only imagine why no corruption arrest have been made. And I can only ask myself, why not solar?

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