With barge salvage operation on hold, concerns mount over toxic coal ash on board

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Coast Guard’s efforts to remove a massive barge that’s been stranded one mile off the coast in the ocean for more than a week have hit a major snag.

Wind gusts of up to 25 miles-per-hour and high waves have brought the salvage operation to a complete stop. Naval officers say it may be several days before the barge containing potentially toxic coal ash is removed.

Right now, there are two major factors to consider one mile off the shore of Hannah Park: time and the continuous pounding and pressure the barge is taking from the waves.

A local marine biologist worries that the barge’s hull could break apart, and in a worst-case scenario, its toxic contents could cause an enormous amount of environmental damage.

Coast Guard divers say they found damage to the hull of the vessel, but the large load of ash onboard hasn’t discharged into the ocean.

“Coal ash is a nasty product,” said Jacksonville University Biology and Marine Science Professor Quinton White. “It’s the result of burning coal and the ash that’s leftover, and when you burn off material you are left with heavy metal.”

White said the barge is getting flexed by the extremely large waves, and it’s possible that the hull could rupture. White says the worst-case scenario would be the release of the ash into the water, which he says could have a complex web of influence on the food chain.

“If it starts breaking open and you get large amounts of this material breaking out and it settles on the bottom then you are smothering anything on the bottom and that basically becomes part of the food chain, it’s complex at this point, when it gets caught in water it gets caught in the food chain,” White said.

Coast Guard officials tell News4Jax salvage operations are on hold until the winds and the waves subside. They say additional tugboats and cranes will likely be dispatched to the scene on Monday.

Right now, there are no known impacts on the environment and a 500-yard safety zone is being enforced around the vessel. News4Jax has received phone calls from fishermen, surfers and environmentalists, who are all worried about the constant pounding the barge is taking.

Salvage companies and engineers are determining the next steps. It’s unclear if they will attempt to offload the contents of the barge or attempt to move it elsewhere.

About the Author:

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