n July 13, 2019, the same day that the “RickyLeaks” was beginning to be felt in Puerto Rico’s national consciousness, a remarkable encounter between the management of Applied Energy Systems (AES) and the Resistance Against the Burning of Coal and its Toxic Ashes (in Spanish, Resistencia RCC[1]), was taking place in a meeting room in Plaza Guayama Mall. It was an encounter because many of the attendees had not been formally invited. As activist Victor Alvarado documented, some days earlier AES contacted a select number of community leaders and invited them to meet with company representatives. What AES did not understand, and therefore failed to account for, is the tight-knit collective nature of the community and environmental publics who oppose them.

Ruta de la muerte" (coal's death route), a meeting of the RCC in Peñuelas, Puerto Rico in July 2018

On that day, members from the Resistencia RCC confronted AES representatives. It was a spirited meeting, in which RCC members took turns offering emotional testimonies about their harmful experiences with the plant, the unburned coal, and the coal-ash. From time to time folks on the sidelines would shout out of turn: “you have to clean the ashes and leave Puerto Rico for good!,” “we don’t want you here,” “you are liars, stop lying!” Company representatives listened, failing time and again to answer questions directly, further angering the already skeptical attendees. This encounter in PR’s south presaged the historic fifteen days of protests that would begin on that same evening in front of La Fortaleza (the governor’s residence) in Old San Juan.  

In Puerto Rico, environmental resistance has historically been a vanguard terrain of struggle against extraction and degradation enabled by the local and federal governments (Lloréns and Stanchich 2019). Arguably, the struggle against AES-PR, which in 2016 led to months of protests and skirmishes with the police in Peñuelas, together with the 2017 botched response to Hurricane María, the continued disregard for the crisis of violence against women, and the leaked Telegram chat, all lay the groundwork that led to the 2019 summer uprising (LeBrón 2019; Bonilla 2019; Morales 2019).

Material-Semiotics and Puerto Rico’s Coal-Ash Material Publics

In this article, I engage with the concept of material-semiotics (Haraway, 1992) to think through how human and other than human bodies constitute and are constituted in space and place, and specifically, in relation to Puerto Rico’s only coal-powered plant. This analysis centers on the unenclosed storage pile of coal combustion residuals (CCRs) located on the Jobos Bay grounds of AES. The focus of much protest and controversy for well over a decade, this CCRs mountain is a material-semiotic entity that has mobilized and given rise to an assemblage of socio-political actors and collectivities who hold varying views about the effects of using coal for electricity generation in Puerto Rico. The “body” of toxic-coal ash is physically assembled in Guayama, but since 2002 several million tons of its ashes have been deposited in Peñuelas, Humacao, in a dozen other Puerto Rican towns, as well as in Arroyo Barril, Dominican Republic, and Osceola County, Florida. A material-semiotics approach hails us to understand how actual material entities, such as the AES-PR and the CCRs produced there have generated an overlapping set of publics from near and far who oppose them. Similarly, the Telegram chat, itself a “body of texts,” widely disseminated and accessed through on-line technologies was a material catalyst that moved a historic number of publics across great geographic distances to act and convene around a common goal. For the protesting publics the leaked texts became emblematic of abuse, disrespect, and injustice.

AES coal-burning power plant and toxic coal-ash pile in Guayama, PR

Using the material-semiotic conceptual lens to think about the CCRs reveals the human as just one actor within a complex assemblage of other than human actors exerting their own forces upon the ecosystem. This framework marks the Guayama CCRs-mountain as an “object of knowledge” actively generating meaning and discourse (Hawaray, 1991: 200). For instance, though this human generated and assembled CCRs-pile appears as a large monolith in the landscape that is only intervened upon by human powered-bulldozers, we know that other than human actors, such as rain, wind, and tremors, are actively reshaping its contours. Similarly, the pile, estimated at 440 million tons and growing each day, is continuously shifting with the pressure of its own weight its particles slowly seeping into the ground water below it, which in turn flows with the subterranean waters. This CCRs-pile is not only composed of coal, but is a hybrid of materials and waste streams that include sand and soil particles, the droppings of birds flying over it, dead insects and other animal carcasses, loose leaves and plastic bags carried by the wind then incorporated into its “body.” 

The human actors that form the “coal-ash material publics” hold varying degrees of political and financial power.  They are also affected unequally by it. Noortje Marres explains that “material publics” emerge from the capacity of material entities—such as a mountain of hazardous waste— to “inspire, disturb, provoke and surprise in politically and morally significant ways” (Marres, 2012:1). Thus, coal combustion residuals are defined variously by these publics as a “product,” “waste,” and “toxic waste.” Entangled in this broad socio-political controversy are opposing actors and collectives who not only define, but who think about, and live with the coal-ash in varied ways. For many concerned local residents and activists the CCRs index a history of environmental injustice in the region, and is emblematic of government-business collusion that has historically put profits before people, ecosystem, and environmental health.

Four years of ethnographic fieldwork on the coal-ash environmental terrain of struggle in Puerto Rico has allowed me to identify overlapping publics constituted by the materials generated in Guayama’s plant. As this struggle has stretched out over time, it has allowed for various publics to incorporate themselves. While some publics have been involved from the beginning and remain central, others participate when the struggle is heightened and support is needed, falling away to the margins when there are periods of seeming inactivity. It is important to note that those at the center of environmental terrains of struggle, such as in this case, the groups that comprise the Resistencia RCC, are continuously observing, discussing, planning, litigating, proposing policy changes, and documenting what is happening. During the summer 2019 uprising, members of the Resistencia RCC were visible carrying signs and wearing tee shirts with anti-coal messages. They joined protests in Old San Juan and in several towns throughout Puerto Rico, such as Salinas, Yauco, Mayagüez, aligning with and supporting other protesting publics (i.e. feminists, anti-Junta, pro-debt audit, pensioners, and students), to achieve the common goal of ousting the governor and his political cronies. These multiple, and sometimes overlapping publics, were brought together by a perceived sense of shared injustice wrought by a government that had at best acted neglectfully, and at worst, disrespectfully.

The earthly materials that hail the “coal ash material publics” include electricity, money, jobs, coal-ash, waste, disposal transactions, contamination and pollution, toxicity, illness and information/knowledge. For these publics, coal-energy generation and its byproducts mean and affect specific real-world consequences. The assemblage of coal-ash material publics in PR (see Illustration I) is a typology of the publics entangled with the CCRs on the grounds of AES-PR. These include: AES-Puerto Rico, Governments, Local resource users, Concerned community witnesses, Environmental activists, Environmental justice activists, Environmental human-health activists, Transnational actors, Information seekers and knowledge creators, Diaspora individuals and collectives, and Non-concerned local residents. (This list is not meant to be exhaustive, and the publics I have identified often belong to multiple categories simultaneously, but rather are meant to be indicative of the diversity of actors entangled in this environmental, sociocultural, political, financial, and ethical constellation). Each public differs conceptually and is set apart from one another as a result of their relationship to PR and to the southeast, their political and ethical commitments, as well as their motivations, claims and goals. Following, I briefly elucidate some of these distinctions.

llustration I. Assemblage of Coal-Ash ‘Material Publics’ in Puerto Rico


AES-Puerto Rico is the originator of the coal ash. They began operating the Jobos Bay plant in 2002 and generate an estimated 17% of the island’s electricity, while also generating a profit for shareholders from the island’s high electricity prices and its captive market. The company employs approximately 110 people, the vast majority of whom are non-local residents, and has created a number of auxiliary jobs mainly in the waste transportation and disposal industry. AES believes that coal-powered energy generation does not harm the environment because of their uses of the latest advances in engineering technology to produce “clean energy.” They created a CCRs derived product called Agremax, an additive for construction materials, which allowed them to monetize this waste stream. They engage in “good neighbor” corporate social responsibility practices aiming to build “community goodwill” through the sponsorship of local athletic teams, including the gifting of uniforms and providing scholarships and, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, with the distribution of bottled water. They argue that they operate in compliance with the environmental regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the local Environmental Quality Board.


Governments include both local and federal entities with regulatory oversight and policy-making power over corporate entities. The governments are concerned with having stable and strong electricity supply because it is a significant service in their ability to generate and sustain a robust local economy (i.e. tourist industry[2]). They seek to offer electricity at cost-effective rates to paying customers. After hurricane María, governments are particularly concerned with facilitating PREPA’s transition from a public utility to privately owned providers. In order to continue to be regarded as a competent actor the local government must prove that they can re-build and maintain a stable, strong grid that in turn signals their belonging and ability to transact in global financial modernity (Lloréns, 2018: 144).


The Resistencia RCC encompasses several material-publics. Including local resource users (i.e. fishers, crabbers, farmers, hunters) who depend on, are in intimate contact with, and act as observes of the local environment (García-Quijano 2006; 2009). Concerned community witnesses are folks who live in the communities adjacent to the plant and experience first hand its dust, smells, and sounds, and illnesses. Environmental activists understand fossil fuel electricity generation as damaging to the environment and as a main contributor to the current climate crisis. In my ethnographic work, I have found that this category of activists rarely connect, and when I have asked, they have flat out denied, the links between socioeconomic class (i.e. poverty) and race (i.e. blackness), and the ways in which these demographic variables are intricately tied to the siting of environmentally polluting industries. They argue instead that the siting of polluting industries is connected to socio-economic class and poverty, but not to race (i.e. blackness) because they deny racism plays a part in PR’s socio-spatial arrangements.


Environmental justice activists understand fossil fuel electricity generation as an agent of death and a significant contributor to the climate crisis. These activists tend to live in communities affected by environmental pollution. They tend to have an intersectional understanding of the ways in which race and class are inextricably linked and tied to the uses of space and to the siting of polluting industries. They call attention to racist and classist practices in the siting of polluting entities and want to be included in the decision-making about the future of their communities. Environmental human-health activists are primarily concerned about the effects of polluting industries on human health. Rates of illness among children and spikes in cancer rates in a community or region are used as predictors of environmental toxicity. They tend to be aware of, and want to call attention to, the compounded effects of poverty, racialization, and siting of polluting industries in generating harm. Transnational actors are multiple and are hailed to the scene for various reasons. Intergovernmental organizations, such as the U.N. Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty & Human Rights, [3] the Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes, and Human Rights Watch, are concerned about the perceived mishandling of the hazardous CCRs-mountain. Information seekers, knowledge creators include academic researchers, journalists, and documentarians most of who are themselves environmentalists and/or environmental justice advocates. They want to tell the stories of the affected communities to inform the public about the great injustices suffered by community members. Diaspora individuals and collectives are ethnic Puerto Ricans who do not live on the archipelago but are concerned with its political, environmental, and land uses. They tend to advocate at the federal level and collaborate on island and stateside protests in support of local activists.

Carbonera pa'fuera" (Coal-plant get out!) on a wall in Salinas, Puerto Rico

Resistencia RCC During and After the 2019 Summer Uprising

The July 13, 2019 meeting with AES ended with an agreement that the Resistencia RCC would draft a set of questions for the company to address at their next face-to-face meeting. The RCC warned the company to stop their “divide and conquer” tactics, in which they try to arrange meetings with individuals rather than with the collective. On July 17th and 22nd, the Resistencia RCC, whose anti-coal ash struggle has transcended the confines of affected local communities and is part of a broader, archipelagic demand for environmental rights and justice, marched at the massive Ricky Resign protests that took place in San Juan and in other towns throughout Puerto Rico. They demanded the ousting of a governor who in 2016 and 2017 ordered squads of police to escort and protect the trucks transporting coal-ash from AES in Guayama to the EC Waste landfill in Peñuelas, where riot police was assembled to block and arrest coal-ash protesters. On July 27, the RCC sent a four-page letter with their concerns and queries to AES-PR.

Though Gov. Rosselló finally resigned on July 24th, on July 31st he named Pedro Pierluisi as his likely successor. This opened the way to Pedro Pierluisi’s brief, unconstitutional occupation of the governor’s seat. This inflamed the RRC because Pierluisi, and the law firm for which he worked, O’Neill & Borges, are legal counsel for AES-Puerto Rico. Their concerns were further stoked when on August 2nd, during televised confirmation hearings to PR’s senate, Pierluisi explained that Agremax, the product made from coal-ashes, had beneficial uses, thus refusing to admit that they were in fact an environmental hazard. The RCC protested against Pierluisi in Old San Juan on August 4th. To their relief, the Supreme Court unseated Pierluisi after they ruled he had not been properly confirmed as secretary of state by both chambers of the legislature and was removed from the position on August 7th.

On August 15th, the Resistencia RCC submitted a letter to the newly confirmed Governor Wanda Vázquez requesting a meeting to discuss the immediate closure of AES, the clean up of the coal-ashes and the contamination caused by it, an end to contract negotiations with AES, who are now seeking to operate in Puerto Rico under an affiliate company named “Fluence.” In that letter, they also invited Gov. Vázquez to attend a protest organized by the group on the grounds of AES in Guayama on August 24th. That letter went unanswered. On September 14th, RCC members offered testimony in Guayama to Congressman Raul M. Grijalva, the Chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources. Congressman Grijalva said that this visit to Puerto Rico was part of a broader plan to introduce changes to the PROMESA law enacted in 2016. Lastly, on September 29th, RCC members intercepted the governor during her visit to the privately owned EcoEléctrica, an LNG-powered plant in Peñuelas, a town in southwest Puerto Rico. After a three-hour standoff with police, the governor spoke with two RCC members and scheduled a meeting in her office on August 30th. She is the first governor to meet with the RCC. At the meeting, Governor Vázquez told RCC members that she is against the depositing of coal-ashes in Puerto Rico. On October 2, RCC members attended an EPA public hearing in Arlington, VA to offer their testimonies about the negative effects of living with toxic coal-ash. On January 2, 2020, Governor Vázquez signed Law 5-2020, which prohibits the deposit and the disposal of coal-ash or coal-ash combustion residuals in Puerto Rico.

The AES-PR contract expires in 2028 and to date there is no imminent plan to shut it down. Rumors about transitioning the plant to methane (also known as liquefied natural gas), have circulated, but even if this were to occur, the retrofitting process would take several years. Moreover, switching to methane will not end the contamination woes and dangers faced by adjacent communities. Finally, using methane, a fossil fuel that emits powerful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, would entail the continuation of Puerto Rico’s heavy reliance on “dirty energy.”

Children bathing in Las Mareas Lagoon in Guayama, Puerto Rico, on 4th of July 2018, with toxic coal-ash pile in the background

In this era of climate crisis, the continued reliance on fossil fuels—a material-semiotic entity—threatens the very survival of the eco-system, including the human inhabitants that comprise the Puerto Rican archipelago. Arguably, the last five hundred years have been characterized by the relentless extraction of Earth’s resources and the brutal degradation of life in the name of capital accumulation. A material-semiotic analysis reveals that at stake is the material stuff that makes up and sustains “real life,” that is, the land, air, water, plants, human and non-human animals that comprise our fragile ecosphere. The material-publics who came together during the 2019 Boricua uprising were demanding much more than the resignation of an incompetent politician, together they began the hard work of shaping and enacting a more just, inclusive, and equitable Puerto Rican society. This work is just beginning, and our survival literally depends on its success.

[1] The Resistencia RCC is made up of Comunidad Guayamesa Unidos por tu Salud, Alianza Comunitaria y Ambiental del Sur Este (ACASE), Campamento contra las cenizas de Peñuelas, Comité Diálogo Ambiental de Salinas, Frente de Afirmación del Sureste (FASE), Toa Bajeños en Defensa del Ambiente, Comité Yabucoeño Pro Calidad de Vida, Coalición de Organización Anti Incineración de Arecibo, Movimiento Socialista de Trabajadores (MST), Frente Socialista, Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP), Vive Borikén, El Puente, Sierra Club, Comité de Salud Pública y Ambiental del Colegio de Cirujanos de Puerto Rico, Fundación Médica.

[2] “Upon commercial operation later this year, the AES Puerto Rico Total Energy Plant will contribute to driving the island's economic development by generating electricity cost-effectively and with minimum environmental impact - helping maintain Puerto Rico's standing as one of the Caribbean's major tourist destinations” (Jarvis, 2002). https://www.modernpowersystems.com/features/featurepuerto-rico-s-first-coal-plant-will-be-among-the-world-s-cleanest/

[3] See Item #4 https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22533&LangID=E

Other essays from this forum include:

Making Space for Decolonial Futures: An Editors’ Introduction, Joaquín Villanueva and Marisol LeBrón

“Esta ‘democracia’ no la entendemos”: On Exercising Democracy in the World’s Oldest Colony, Mónica A. Jiménez

La Calle Fortaleza in Puerto Rico’s Primavera de Verano, Aurora Santiago-Ortiz and Jorell Meléndez-Badillo

“One of the most corrupt places on earth:” Colonialism, (Anti)Corruption, and the Puerto Rican Summer of 2019, José Atiles

Summer 2019: The Great Racialized Puerto Rican Family Protesting in the Street Fearlessly, Bárbara I. Abadía-Rexach (a version of this article is also provided in Spanish)

Three Poems from the Summer 2019, Ana Portnoy Brimmer

Black Feminist Tactics: On La Colectiva Feminista en Construcción’s Politics without Guarantees, Rocío Zambrana

Environmental justice movements in Puerto Rico: Life-and-death struggles and decolonizing horizons, Gustavo García-López

The Public Reckoning: Anti-debt Futures After #RickyRenuncia, Sarah Molinari

Puerto Rican Freedom Dreaming: Solidarity and the Radical Protest Tradition, Sara Awartani

Aguadilla, Decoloniality, and the Summer of ‘19, Pedro Lebrón Ortiz


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Hilda Lloréns PhD is the author of Imaging the Great Puerto Rican Family: Framing Nation, Race and Gender during the American Century (2014). Her book, MotherLand: Afro-Puerto Rican Women Forging Good Lives and Fighting for Environmental Justice, is under contract with the Decolonizing Feminisms: Antiracist and Transnational Praxis Series, University of Washington Press. Dr. Lloréns is an anthropologist who teaches race, gender, and decolonial thought in the Sociology & Anthropology Dept. at the University of Rhode Island. Follow her on Twitter @shecoanarchist