The United States government approved a key permit Tuesday that helps pave the way for construction of a waste-to-energy plant in Puerto Rico that local environmentalists have long opposed.

The US Environmental Protection Agency awarded New York-based Energy Answers International an air permit to operate a 77-megawatt facility in the northern coastal town of Arecibo.

It would be the US territory’s largest recycling plant if approved.

Other permits are still pending for a facility that would generate enough power to serve more than 76,000 homes in five municipalities a day.

“We are very, very pleased,” project director Mark Green said in a phone interview. “It is probably the most demanding of all the permits that the project needs to secure.”

If approved, the US$650-million facility would be built in three years, generate some 3,800 jobs and have a capacity to process more than 1,900 tonnes of garbage a day.

It’s the first time a waste-to-energy facility in Puerto Rico has received such a permit, said Jose Font, the EPA director for the Caribbean. He said the agency reviewed 3,000 public comments before issuing its decision.

Members of an Arecibo-based coalition that oppose the project plan to appeal the EPA’s decision, saying they are worried about contamination. The coalition has held weekly protests in front of the mayor’s office for more than two years in a push to block the project.

“We feel this project is a serious threat to the health of people in Arecibo and the island,” said Angel Gonzalez, a coalition member and president of the public and environmental health committee of Puerto Rico’s Association of Surgeons.

The coalition recently celebrated a decision by Puerto Rico’s Justice Department to annul the government’s contract with Energy Answers International for legal reasons. Green, however, said that company lawyers are fighting the decision and expect to succeed.

Environmental consultant Alexis Molinares said the facility would use waste produced at home, receiving everything collected by municipal and private garbage trucks that is not recyclable. The energy created would then be sold to the state-owned power company, he said.

The EPA’s announcement comes as Puerto Rico prepares to close several landfills as it runs out of space for garbage, with the island producing an estimated 9,000 tonnes of garbage a day.

Puerto Rico has some 30 landfills, but government officials have said that only about five meet local and federal standards.

- AP