Commission discusses alerting the public of offshore spills following barge crash off Atlantic Beach

I-TEAM: Barge ran aground last March, spilling at least 9,300 tons of coal ash

The Jacksonville Waterways Commission met Wednesday to talk about better ways to respond to marine incidents like the one last year when thousands of tons of coal ash spilled into the ocean off the coast of Atlantic Beach.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Jacksonville Waterways Commission met Wednesday to talk about better ways to respond to marine incidents like the one last year when thousands of tons of coal ash spilled into the ocean off the coast of Atlantic Beach.

State Sen. Audrey Gibson, who sits on the commission, also told News4JAX that they are trying to determine the best way to alert the public about an offshore spill.

In addition, there was a discussion about city officials getting a better grasp on who’s responsible for transporting products like coal ash into Jacksonville and who is responsible for managing the cleanup.

According to internal emails obtained by the News4JAX I-TEAM last March, 9,300 tons of coal ash spilled out of a barge and into the Atlantic Ocean. This happened after the barge, which was traveling from Puerto Rico to Jacksonville, ran aground near the mouth of the St. Johns River.

“There is a public address system the Coast Guard uses that notified mariners, but it’s only to mariners and not the general public, and I think that’s what we want to do is inform the public,” said JaxPort board member Ed Fleming.

Fleming offered his insight into the incident after working in the maritime industry for more than 30 years. He and Gibson discussed how the public should be notified about offshore spills, even if the contents -- like coal ash -- aren’t considered hazardous waste.

“But we have multiple means of communication in the city, right? And individuals have multiple ways to receive this communication. So it doesn’t have to be an Amber Alert or a Silver Alert in that respect. But certainly, a text message, as is used all the time, the city has the city has a system, I do believe, where it can say there was an incident with the barge,” said Gibson, D-Jacksonville.

It was the I-TEAM and not Jacksonville city officials who alerted the public to the offshore spill, and to this day city officials say they still don’t have the official incident report from the federal government detailing precisely what happened with so many entities involved, including the port, the Coast Guard, the owners of the barge and the tugboat, and the Puerto Rican shippers of the coal ash. City leaders want to improve their plans for managing incidents that could harm the environment.

“I wanted to suggest, first of all, that we create a chart so we know who is actually on first and how many people need to be engaged in order for the public to get the information and to satisfy the fact that city officials and state officials are aware of things being taken care of,” Gibson said.

RELATED: Massive barge still stranded offshore, south of the St. Johns River | Divers find hull of stranded barge damaged | With barge salvage operation on hold, concerns mount over toxic coal ash on board | Removing stuck barge filled with ash could cost millions | I-TEAM: Email reveals how much coal ash has leaked from stranded barge | State releases assessment from grounding of barge Bridgeport off Atlantic Beach | Bridgeport barge reaches final destination at Jacksonville shipyards | 5 months after barge sinks off Jacksonville coast, environmentalists call for change | I-TEAM: Environmental group levying fines for coal ash spill | Atlantic Beach city leaders pass resolution calling for end to coal ash shipments | Sparks fly as Jacksonville Waterways Commission weighs ban on coal ash shipments | City committee reviews barge crash off Atlantic Beach that sent coal ash into ocean

The Environmental Protection Agency found that the offshore spill did very little harm to environment and it fined the company responsible $38,000. Panel members also put in another Freedom of Information Act request for the incident report which they’ve yet to receive.


About the Author:

Tarik anchors the 4, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. weekday newscasts and reports with the I-TEAM.