The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) has known for more than a year that it needed to replace a filter - and fix another one - at the Aguirre Power Plant that prevents trash and sargassum from entering the plant, but it was not until two weeks ago that the purchase order for the equipment was approved.

As a result of that slowness, last Sunday several blackouts began to be recorded that have left around 700,000 customers on the island without service or with low voltage, because the "high volume" of sargassum that entered through Jobos Bay was too large, according to engineer Alexis Cruz, head of the plant.

"I had never seen a situation like this in the 21 years I've been here. It was a volume that our equipment could not handle," Cruz exclaimed during a tour of the area.

Cruz explained that in Jobos Bay there is a floating barrier, but Prepa does not really have control of the material it collects until it reaches the filters it operates on the shore. The official specified that the sargassum began to accumulate at a problematic level last Wednesday, four days before the first blackout, and "there was about three feet of material when it arrived and began to run under the barrier.

Once the material reaches the shore, it encounters grates and rotating screens that are supposed to prevent it from entering the plant's condensers. However, of the available equipment, one requires new parts and maintenance, while another needs replacement in its entirety. Cruz indicated that each filter costs $250,000, the manufacturer is only in Italy, and original parts must be used.

"The purchase order was approved two weeks ago. What happens is that this type of situation involves a process, the budget request must be made," Cruz said, referring to the process that PREPA is going through with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which began last year.

For his part, the head of operations at the Aguirre plant, Fernando Zayas, said that the plant uses seawater to cool the condensers, but the entry of the sargassum into the condensers causes a change in level that results in the plant shutting down and ceasing to generate energy.

"It throws less water into the condenser and you have to do a 'reverse flow' operation, that is, reverse it to clean it. If we get a sargassum crop, it causes a safety problem and the unit goes out of service as a self-protection measure," according to Zayas.

Cruz added that this change in level and the forced shutdown of the plant caused a rupture in one of the boilers, which also led to more outages and took two days to be repaired. The Aguirre plant is the most important for PREPA in terms of power generation since between the two units it generates 900 megawatts. It has been in operation since 1972.

Colón: "No more excuses"

Meanwhile, Prepa's new executive director, Josué Colón, assured that he will look for a way to ensure that this does not happen again. "Whatever happened, has already happened. What I'm going to do is to make sure it doesn't happen again, because the equipment is going to be needed here. We are going to make it urgent because everyone knows what happens when there is no team," said Colón.

The official reiterated that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi's mandate is one of zero excuses and affirmed that the lack of money to buy equipment like this would not be a problem from now on. He also ruled out that in the coming days there will be more blackouts due to this same problem. "The contamination that was there has been removed. Therefore, we do not expect that, despite the lack of equipment, we will not be able to maintain the operation at a viable level," he told EL VOCERO.

Colón had headed Prepa under the administration of Luis Fortuño. When asked by the press, he affirmed that he had never seen a situation like this one with sargasso. However, for Cruz and Zayas it is not the first time it has happened. The latter has seen the adverse effects of macroalgae at Central Aguirre on at least four previous occasions in some 26 years of work. Usually, the "sargassum season" is in December, according to officials.

Sargassum in Puerto Rico takes over several beaches in Guánica and Cabo Rojo

Several of the most recognized beaches of the southwest coast of Puerto Rico are invaded by sargassum, which hinders bathers and visitors to enjoy these important natural resources. The situation took Guánica Mayor Ismael Rodríguez Ramos by surprise, who told EL VOCERO that this is the first time that sargassum has reached Playa Santa in large quantities.

The executive assigned 10 municipal employees from the Public Works and Emergency Management offices to clean up the area and requested assistance from the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DNER), but the request was denied, he said.

"We requested to use a 'digger' to remove the sargassum because it is thousands of pounds of material, but the DNER told us we could not use it because of their regulations. So I requested equipment to move it (the sargassum) from the shore and they told me they didn't have it. I asked for DNER personnel to be assigned to us and they didn't have any either," said Rodríguez Ramos.

The mayor demanded action on the part of the agency in the maintenance of his town's resources since, he said, they do not even supply him with garbage bags to pick up the garbage on the beach, a task that the municipality performs twice a week. Rodríguez Ramos expressed his concern about the sudden change in the movement of sargassum along the Guanique coast, where it usually accumulates in areas such as Guaypao. There, tired of the constant bad smell, neighbors of the area, the municipality, and other entities collected 1,300 pounds of sargassum during a cleanup on June 26.

"I hope this is an isolated event and that it does not happen again, since Playa Santa is one of Guánica's main attractions," he said. In the case of Cabo Rojo, the vegetative material affects important tourist attractions such as La Playuela, the Combate area, and the Boquerón beach resort, confirmed Mayor Jorge Morales Wiscovitch of the New Progressive Party (NPP). "The biggest problem we have right now is in the Playuela area, where the sargassum has been accumulating for the past two months and we have not been able to use machinery to clean it up because it is a protected area," he explained.

The executive said that although the DNER did not provide heavy equipment to clean the beach due to a large amount of sargassum, it did offer municipal personnel.  "The DNER personnel will clean the beach by hand. They will remove the sargassum and leave it in an area to dry and then remove it from the area," said Morales Wiscovitch, who was not given a date for the start of the work.

However, he anticipated that the sargassum problem will be extended during the next few days due to the fact that this material is expected to continue arriving at the coast when the long weekend is approaching due to next Monday's holiday. Above "the lighthouse area (of Cabo Rojo) you can see in the distance many patches of sargassum on the horizon," he said.

In the case of the Boquerón and Combate area, Morales Wiscovitch mentioned that the sargassum began to accumulate during the past few days causing discomfort due to the strong stench that these algae expel once they begin to decompose. "We are going to meet with the DNER to see how we can collaborate in the cleanup of Combate and Boquerón, and determine when the work will begin," he added.

Source: El Vocero