St. Johns County woman sounds alarm on coal ash after barge spill

Susan Wind says she speaks from experience. She attributes her daughter’s cancer to the substance.

A St Johns County woman is taking issue with the EPA's classification of coal ash being non-hazardous waste. 9,300 tons of a coal ash product Called Agremax spilled out of a damaged barge and into the ocean more than 2 months ago just a mile off the coast of Atlantic Beach and it's still on the ocean floor.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A St. Johns County woman is speaking out about the Environmental Protection Agency’s classification of coal ash as “nonhazardous waste” after a damaged barge spilled 9,300 tons of the substance in the waters off Atlantic Beach.

In an interview Wednesday, Susan Wind told News4Jax she wants to get the word out about the dangers of coal ash after learning how much of the substance has been spilled. She said she speaks from experience: her daughter was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, a diagnosis Wind attributes to coal ash contamination.

“When I saw there was a spill, I wasn’t surprised, to be honest with you,” Wind said. “Because I don’t think, unfortunately, I don’t think coal ash has been handled properly. And it never has been.”

As News4Jax previously reported, an internal email from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission obtained by the I-TEAM shows the state estimates at least 9,300 tons of coal ash, also known as Agremax, has leaked from the 418-foot barge since it ran into the jetties off Atlantic Beach in March.

Wind said her daughter, Taylor, contracted thyroid cancer about four years ago in Lake Norman, North Carolina. Though her daughter showed signs of improvement, Wind said the cancer has since come back, meaning Taylor will need more treatment.

“My daughter was diagnosed with thyroid cancer at age 16,” she recalled. “And when the news spread, I learned there were a ton of cancers all over my area, three to four (cases of thyroid cancer) alone on my street.”

Her daughter’s diagnosis led Wind to launch her own investigation into what she calls cancer clusters in North Carolina. She said real estate developers used coal ash as dirt while building communities there. She said she learned the nearby town of Huntersville also had an alarming number of rare ocular cancers in children.

If you ask Wind, the common denominator in those cases and her daughter’s was the presence of coal ash.

“The neighbors were coming to me and other neighborhoods surrounding us, saying, ‘My kids have thyroid cancer, ‘My kids have brain tumors,’ ‘My kids and spouse have this cancer,’” Wind said. “I was inundated with people telling me about their cancers.”

Even though the EPA classifies coal ash as nonhazardous waste, Wind said, she believes the enormous amount that’s likely sitting on the ocean floor off the coast of the Atlantic Beach could turn into an environmental disaster.

“They say it’s nonhazardous, and that’s an insult and an embarrassment,” she said. “Basically, it’s unfortunate the people who profit from it, and the lobbyists who control it, can say what is safe and what’s not safe for our environment.”

Attorney Rod Sullivan, who specializes in maritime law, said the volume of coal ash that has leaked from the damaged barge is alarming, and he fears it’s having a negative impact on the ocean environment. He said the substance is used to cap landfills, meaning nothing will get through it.

“While I don’t have a concern of Agremax itself being poisonous to the water, it will destroy any sea life that it falls on,” Sullivan said. “So any sea life that was underneath it won’t survive, and I doubt anything is going to grow on top of it. So while I don’t have a concern of Agremax itself being poisonous to the water, it will destroy any sea life that it falls on.”

Sullivan isn’t the only one with concerns. Dr. Quinton White, executive director of the Marine Science Research Center at Jacksonville University, said the leak could affect more than just ocean life.

“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,” Dr. White said.

Water quality tests are being conducted near the barge and the results could be released as soon as next week.

About the Author:

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