SUNY Chancellor is quietly stepping down from AES Corp board amid pressure over toxic coal ash

SUNY Chancellor Kristina M Johnson (via Flickr)

Kristina Johnson, the chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY) system, is quietly stepping down from the board of directors of AES Corp, an electric utility that has been dumping toxic coal ash from its power plant in Guayama, Puerto Rico. AES’s coal ash disposal has created significant public health hazards for communities in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico where the dumping occurred. Johnson’s exit comes as AES faces increasing pressure over the coal ash as it seeks to renegotiate its power purchase agreement with PREPA, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

According to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Janet G. Davidson was appointed to the AES Corp board on February 22, 2019 and is standing in Johnson’s stead in the April 2019 election of directors at AES’s annual shareholder meeting. It is unclear, however, whether Johnson intends to divest herself of the 151,151 shares of AES stock that she owns, which had a value of $2,657,234 at the close of the market on March 6, 2019.

The appointment of Johnson’s replacement came only four days after we reported on the conflict between her governance position at AES and SUNY’s humanitarian efforts in the wake of the 2017 hurricanes that devastated the island. The day after we published our article, a SUNY spokesperson issued a combative statement to the Albany Times-Union denying that Johnson was in any way responsible for her company’s actions and accused PAI of mongering “conspiracy theories.” Shortly thereafter, the president of United University Professions, the union that represents SUNY faculty and staff, issued a statement calling on Johnson to reconsider her board role. Organizers in Puerto Rico who are opposed to the plant published an open letter seeking a meeting with Johnson about the coal ash.

As it turns out, while the university was publicly disclaiming her responsibility, Johnson was already engineering her exit from the company. Her unceremonious resignation suggests that AES wanted to quiet the story as quickly as possible as it deals with increasing pressure from communities organizing against the Guayama plant while it simultaneously is seeking to renegotiate its contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) past its original 2027 expiration date.

The power purchase agreement that AES signed with PREPA in 1994 (and amended in 2015) was set to run for 33 years until 2027. That contract led to the construction of the Guayama plant, which opened in 2002 and soon after began disposing of its coal ash waste, both in the Dominican Republic and in Puerto Rico. The company is currently negotiating with the utility to extend that contract.

Those negotiations could be negatively impacted by public opposition to the Guayama plant, which has grown in intensity over the years. On February 26, residents from communities where coal ashes have been dumped marched on the residence of Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rosselló demanding that the plant be closed. On March 4, AES published a report acknowledging for the first time, after years of denial, that the groundwater under the huge ash mountain at its plant has been contaminated by selenium, lithium, and molybdenum.

PREPA executive director José Ortíz recently told Radio Isla that AES has been removing the toxic waste from the island, but kept the door open for the public utility to renew its contract with the company with the potential request that AES convert the plant to natural gas. This week, Bernerd Da Santos, AES’s chief operating officer, visited the island and told El Nuevo Día that AES was committing to reducing the mountain of coal ash at the Guayama plant by more than half. Da Santos also held the possibility of AES converting to renewable energy – if the power authority agreed to renew its contract.

The departure of Kristina Johnson, the SUNY Chancellor, from the AES board illustrates an emerging consensus opposed to the dirty energy operations on Puerto Rico that has put the company on the defensive as it attempts to extend its valuable contract with the island’s public utility. Though Johnson has stepped down, her company’s toxic legacy on the island remains as residents seek a transition to renewable energies and justice for the damage AES has already inflicted.