Concerns grow about toxic coal ash spill

In March, a Moran tugboat pushing the 7,025-ton, 416-foot barge named Bridgeport from Puerto Rico lost control near the mouth of the St. Johns River, causing the barge to crash into the jetties. It was loaded with 14,000 tons of coal ash. Now, four months later, at least 9,300 tons of coal ash has spilled into the surrounding waters, and coal ash is sitting on the ocean floor.

Several local agencies, such as St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Surfrider Foundation’s First Coast Chapter, as well as biologists, environmental and maritime experts have expressed grave concerns over the ash.

“While we don’t anticipate significant impacts to water quality within the St. Johns River from the spill, we do have concerns about ash contaminants entering the aquatic food chain, including fish that use the river,” said Lisa Rinaman with the St. Johns Riverkeeper. “Studies have documented high levels of chemicals, such as selenium, in the tissues of fish where coal ash has been discharged into waterways.

“In addition, as the ash sinks to the bottom, it smothers aquatic organisms and plants essential to the health of the ecosystem,” she said.

The accident happened just off the coast of Hanna Park. The First Coast Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation is concerned about how the spill could negatively impact the health and safety of its members and others who regularly surf and enjoy outdoor recreation near the accident site.

“Despite our repeated calls to officials the last few months, testing information and transparency of the situation have been hard to come by,” said Nicole de Venoge, chair of the Surfrider’s First Coast Chapter. “We were told in May that the barge would be moved within the week and its still here. Surfers and swimmers are unknowingly recreating in untested waters after a known spill.”

A unified response team has been working to satisfy the Coast Guard that the barge can be moved into a safe berth without affecting the health and safety of the community, responders or the environment, according to News4Jax’s I-Team. On June 23, the salvage team conducted a test tow.

Coal ash is a waste product from the burning of coal in coal-fired power plants that contains toxic contaminants like mercury, cadmium, lead, selenium and arsenic. It can pollute waterways and drinking water and endanger wildlife and human health, if not managed properly, according to St. Johns Riverkeeper.

In 2017 and 2020, the Puerto Rico legislature passed laws banning the disposal of coal ash in its landfills and the onsite storage of ash for more than six months. In response, the power company AES now ships its coal ash on barges into the port at Jacksonville, before the toxic waste is transported to a Folkston, Ga., landfill.

“Pollution doesn’t just go away when it leaves the property of a coal-fired poser plant or a wastewater treatment facility,” Rinaman said. “Polluters must be required to take responsibility for their own waste.”

Water quality tests are being conducted near the barge, and the results are imminent.

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