Toxic Trade News / 16 March 2006
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Dominican Rep. seeks $80M for U.S. dumping
by Sharon Theimer, Associated Press
16 March 2006 (Washington) – The Dominican Republic is looking to Washington for help recovering at least $80 million in damages from a U.S. utility it accuses of dumping thousands of tons of coal ash on the country's beaches, sickening residents and harming the tourism industry.

The Dominican government has hired a Washington lawyer to attempt to open settlement talks with the company, AES Corp., or failing that, to file a lawsuit in U.S. courts against AES before a two-year statute of limitations expires late next week.

The government says 82,000 tons of coal ash were shipped from an AES plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico, and left on beaches in Manzanillo and the Samana Bay port town of Arroyo Barril between October 2003 and March 2004 without proper government permits.

"It's had a devastating impact upon the economy of these two communities. Their tourist traffic is off 70 percent in Samana and down sharply in Manzanillo as well," said Bart Fisher, the Washington attorney hired by the Dominican government. "It's had a devastating impact on the health of the people living near the toxic dumps in terms of respiratory problems and asthma, and some have died in fact."

The country is seeking at least $80 million in compensation for economic damage, environmental cleanup and monitoring, and health screening of the local population. In Manzanillo, townspeople were hired to move the ash without protective gear, such as masks, Fisher said. In addition, the dump site there is next to a mangrove swamp where cattle, goats and pigs feed, and there is fear toxins have entered the food chain, he said.

"You talk to these people, they all think they're sick because of this," Fisher said.

In pursuing its claim, the Dominican Republic is taking on a company that counts a member of the former Reagan and Bush administrations among its top executives. Richard Darman, chairman of the AES board of directors, was director of the Office of Management and Budget in the first President Bush's administration and a deputy treasury secretary in the Reagan administration.

AES confirms the ash originated at its plant but says it did nothing improper, and that the dispute is between the Dominican government and a Florida company AES hired to transport the ash.

"We think they're unsubstantiated and have no merit," AES spokeswoman Robin Pence said of the Dominican government's allegations.

AES pointed to a statement in 2004 by an official in the Dominican Republic's previous administration saying that the ash was harmless and that proper permits were obtained to dispose of it. However, the current administration conducted its own investigation and found otherwise.

Environmental studies commissioned by the Dominican government are under way to determine the ash's impact on ocean life, including whether pollution has driven whales farther out to sea, Fisher said.

Whale-watching is a major part of the country's tourism industry.

The U.S. State Department is not involved in the complaint lodged by the Dominicans but is aware of it, department spokeswoman Jan Edmonson said.

The current Dominican government has pursued a corruption case against a former environmental official accused of granting improper permits for the ash disposal, and is trying to extradite a Florida businessman, Roger Charles Fina, whose firm was hired by AES to transport the ash.

But the case has drawn little attention beyond the Dominican Republic's borders.

There was no answer Wednesday at a telephone number listed as Fina's when The Associated Press called several times seeking comment. A lawyer representing him in the Dominican Republic had no immediate comment.

Ari Hershowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council said his group recently became aware of the ash-dumping case and is researching it before deciding whether to pursue action in Washington.

"We're always concerned when U.S. companies dump materials overseas," he said. "Coal ash is something that needs controlled management and there are detailed U.S. laws on how to properly manage and dispose of the waste, and this is the kind of stuff you wouldn't want your kids to play on."

AES operates in more than two dozen countries throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. It is a major provider of electricity in the Dominican Republic, a Spanish-speaking Caribbean nation of roughly 9 million people.

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