JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A barge remains stranded off the coast of Atlantic Beach, not far from Hanna Park, and it has been there for more than two months.
In March, a Moran tugboat that was pushing the vessel from Puerto Rico lost control near the mouth of the St. Johns River, causing it to crash into the jetties. The 418-foot barge is carrying 12,000 tons of coal ash from a power plant, and some of the ash has leaked, causing some concern among environmental experts.
The coal ash is known as Agremax.
“It contains toxic materials. Cadmium, lead, arsenic, mercury, all the things we worry about are part of this material,” said Dr. Quinton White, executive director of the Marine Science Research Center at Jacksonville University.
White has concerns, especially after the salvage company reported that some of the toxic ash had leaked into the water.
“The problem is when it gets into the ecosystem, it gets picked up by the phytoplankton, eaten by the zooplankton, eaten by the small fish, eaten by the big fish, and then we eat the big fish,” White said.
Cleanup crews have been trying to offload the ash from the giant barge onto smaller barges and then haul it to shore. But the vessel, which is stuck on the soft sandy bottom, has been pounded by rough surf and spring storms.
The companies involved say that so far 4,000 tons have been offloaded and that 8,000 tons are unaccounted for. That could be in the holding compartments or on the ocean floor.
Ruth Santiago is an attorney in Puerto Rico, who’s been working with environmental groups like Earthjustice battling the power plant where the ash comes from, run by a company called AES. She said before coming near the Jacksonville area, the ash was shipped to the Dominican Republic with disastrous results.
“This as coal ash waste was on their beach, there were really serious health issues developed at the same time, and people didn’t know of any other possible cause. And so they sued first the government of Dominican Republic,” Santiago said.
AES Energy provides 25% of power to the island of Puerto Rico. There are two plants in the city of Guayana: One is solar and one is coal fired. On the company’s website, leaders said they are planning to convert more of their portfolio to sustainable energy sources. Puerto Rico has a mandate requiring power companies produce all sustainable energy by 2050.
News4Jax has learned from residents that the barges typically depart with coal ash bound for Florida once or twice a month depending on power consumption.
The destination, Chesser Island Road Landfill in Folkston, is owned and operated by Waste Management. On the site, the company notes it does not accept hazardous waste.
The shipping of the product is legal in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency has not classified it as hazardous waste.
Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection is investigating, but so far, there’s been no action against the companies involved.
The response teams keep a webpage with almost daily updates, adding that the “Health and safety of the community and responders plus the protection of the environment are the top priorities of the unified response.”
News4Jax has learned the state has been testing the water around the barge and could be releasing the results in the next week. We’ve requested any data related to those results.