Expert expresses concerns about fallout of potential spill from stranded barge

The 418-foot barge known as Bridgeport got stuck March 22 off the Atlantic Coast

The 418-foot barge known as Bridgeport got stuck March 22 off the Atlantic Coast.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Two weeks after a massive barge hauling waste from a coal-fired plant got stuck off Jacksonville’s coast, a ship design experts is expressing concerns about the potential for an environmental disaster.

The Moran Towing barge known as Bridgeport could still be seen leaning to one side about a mile east of Naval Station Mayport on Monday, after it got stranded on rocks late last month. The barge, which is sitting about a mile south of the mouth of the St. Johns River, is visible from the base, Hanna Park and Atlantic Beach.

So far, nothing has leaked from the barge, according to the U.S. Coast Guard, but the Coast Guard continues to monitor the situation daily for any updates on that front.

Attempts by News4Jax on Monday to contact Moran by phone and email were unsuccessful.

But with each passing day, the risk grows. The 418-foot barge is carrying ash from coal-fired plants and might be destined for a landfill in Folkston, Georgia, just across the state line. It’s been anchored off the coast since March 22 when its crew tried to bring it through the jetties in bad weather.

Jim Konopasek, a naval architect and engineer who runs Maritime Design in Ponte Vedra Beach, said if the barge is loaded to capacity, 12,000 tons would equate to 200,000 cubic feet of coal ash. Konopasek, who designs vessels, explained what he considers the worst case scenario: the cargo bay is somehow compromised.

“One is the main cargo bay breaches and breaks open and the barge sinks or it disperses the cargo,” he said, noting that the barge isn’t compartmentalized, so a breach would affect the whole shipment.

If that were the case, chemicals such as arsenic, cadmium and mercury could spill on the ocean floor or wash up on nearby beaches, causing an environmental disaster, Konopasek said. He fears the fallout that could result from that scenario: beach closures, dead marine life and potential impacts to commercial and recreational fishing.

Video posted online by 911 Surf Report shows the barge taking a beating last Friday as large waves broke over the deck. The Coast Guard said divers found damage to the hull but so far no sign that anything has spilled. Surfers and beachgoers, meanwhile, have been watching the operation without any noticeable progress.

Two tugboats hired by the barge company, Moran, could be seen idling and monitoring the barge Monday. Konopasek said if the vessel doesn’t sink, salvage teams could bring in a crane and load its cargo onto another barge.

“The main issue right now is no way, no how can they get into the port or into a safe dock,” said Konopasek, noting that any salvage effort would require a combination of planning, patience and funding.

The good news? For the next few days at least, the weather is favorable and the seas calm. Those factors will reduce any stress on the vessel.

About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.