ARECIBO, PUERTO RICO—Carlos Garcia lives in a tiny trailer right along Puerto Rico’s northern coast. A long-time community activist and avid environmentalist, Garcia keeps his door open during the day to let in the sun and breeze. He shuts it at night to protect his solar setup and the few appliances it powers. He shows me sepia photos of his kids and grandkids before making me a warm cup of coffee. His soft blue eyes smile at me when he passes me the mug, humbly apologizing for the lack of furniture in his home.

But a bed, a kitchen, a bath, and his family memorabilia are all Garcia needs. After all, the Caño Tiburones is right outside. This wetland region is one of the island’s largest, and the migratory birds that frequent the land wake him up with their songs every morning. Garcia spends much of his time kayaking through the wetland’s murky water, or hiking a nearby grassy trail that overlooks the Caño’s labyrinth-like canals.

“When the sun comes out it reflects on the water, and the sight is beautiful,” he tells me in Spanish as we stand on a hill.

The Caño Tiburones is a special place, but it’s been treated harshly by humans, who tried to drain it for agriculture in the mid-20th century, altering the balance between freshwater and saltwater that supports the unique ecosystem. Now, an energy company wants to pump two million gallons of water a day from Caño Tiburones to help cool a proposed waste-to-energy incinerator. The incinerator, which would burn everything from wood to tires to car seats, would also spew a cocktail of dangerous pollutants into the air. Lucky for the wetlands, Garcia and the rest of his squad in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, won’t let this project anywhere near the Caño or their community.

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Energy Answers, the company behind the proposed incinerator, has been trying to get the ball rolling since 2010, positioning the project as a solution to the island’s trash problem. The company had struggled to find funding for the incinerator, but earlier this year, it slipped into a fiscal bill meant to help push through critical energy projects in wake the disaster left behind by Hurricane Maria.

Garcia and other opponents to the incincerator made a huge ruckus when they found out, launching a semi-permanent camp right outside the proposed site and protesting to keep any work from taking place. Garcia even laid down in front of an excavator once. All this noise led to Gov. Ricardo Rosselló withdrawing his support of the energy project in February. A month later, Energy Answers asked the Fiscal Oversight Board to remove the incinerator from the list.

“This project is no longer compatible with the goals and the new reality of Puerto Rico, so it will no longer be part of the electrical authority’s transformation objectives,” the governor said, according to El Nuevo Dia.

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Energy Answers says the incincerator would result in 150 permanent jobs and “thousands of direct, indirect, and induced jobs,” according to a 2013 press release. But even if there are economic benefits (which opponents doubt), the plant just isn’t worth the risk for many community members.

You see, not only would this incinerator pull water from a wetland reserve, it would dump pollutants like nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter into the air. That stuff is dangerous for human health.

“Dioxins are one of the most dangerous toxic substances known to man,” said Ángel González, a doctor of internal medicine who sits on the Committee of Environmental and Public Health with the College of Physicians of Puerto Rico. “They produce a bunch of health problems and could even lead to cancer.”

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This risk is especially high in a place like Arecibo.

Signs near the camp outside the proposed incinerator site in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
Photo: Raul Marrero (Gizmodo Media Group)

This coastal city has a long history of industries coming in, trashing the place, and then dipping out when things got too messy. The community is often left to deal with what industry leaves behind.

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Take the Battery Recycling Company, which is right across the street from the incinerator’s proposed site. This defunct lead smelting site is now a Superfund site under the Environmental Protection Agency, and some serious cleanup is required to rid the area of the contamination. The proposed incinerator would only contribute to the area’s already egregious lead contamination, according to Osvaldo Rosario, an environmental chemistry professor at the University of Puerto Rico. And people live nearby. They’ll be subject to these pollutants.

Energy Answers told Earther in an email that its lead emissions would meet national air quality standards and that “the vast majority of the citizens of Arecibo were able to gain confidence in the project’s ability to uphold the highest environmental standards and to protect human health and the environment.”

Opponents don’t buy it, and their perseverance has put the project on pause. Energy Answers told Earther that the island’s financial situation is really what’s weighing the incinerator down, but they’re looking for other options to ensure it happens.

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Garcia, for one, would rather die before he lets the incinerator into his community. Not just for the wetlands he so loves, but for himself, his people, and his city.