Sparks fly as Jacksonville Waterways Commission weighs ban on coal ash shipments

Commission decides to form subcommittee to investigate further

Sparks flew Wednesday as the Jacksonville Waterways Commission debated banning coal ash coming into local ports.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Sparks flew Wednesday as the Jacksonville Waterways Commission debated banning coal ash coming into local ports.

The News4JAX I-TEAM has been following this since March when a barge coming from Puerto Rico carrying 12,000 tons of ash from a coal-fired power plant hit the Mayport jetties in a storm and got stuck off the coast of Atlantic Beach. The Bridgeport Barge sat off the coast for three months, spilling about 9,000 tons of ash onto the ocean floor.

That compound contains a number of toxic chemicals — mercury, arsenic and lead — however, U.S. regulators don’t classify it as hazardous.

“Under the federal guidelines of the way coal ash has been listed, it doesn’t sound like it’s something dangerous or worrisome,” said Jacksonville City Councilman Al Ferraro, chair of the Waterways Commission. “But when you speak with people who understand what the chemical compound’s makeup are, it does. It sounds really important.”

Wednesday’s discussion at City Hall lasted for an hour and a half. There were strong opinions on both sides of the aisle, and that’s why, ultimately, the commission decided to form a subcommittee to investigate the issues even further.

Environmental activists spoke their minds as commissioners debated.

“Coal ash should not be welcome here in Jax. If PR doesn’t want it, why would we want it?” said Nicole de Venoge, Florida policy manager with the Surfrider Foundation.

Marc Hardesty on the Jacksonville Waterways Commission said: “Are we better than this? We’ve worked so hard to clean up our water.”

The I-TEAM learned from state and federal documents that barges with the ash have been coming from Puerto Rico through the mouth of the St. Johns River. Then it went to a private terminal owned by Keystone. From there, it was trucked to the Chesser Island Landfill in Folkston, Georgia.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection tested the water around the site of the shipwreck but not until two weeks after the spill. It found small amounts of the chemicals and has announced $38,000 in fines. The state DEP is fining AES of Puerto Rico, the company which generated the ash; Morgan Towing, the owner of the barge that hit the jetties; and Dann Ocean Towing, whose barge was pulling the coal ash when it became stranded out at sea.

St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman sees that as a slap on the wrist.

“Where is the Florida DEP?” Rinaman said.

Regulators said they weren’t able to attend Wednesday, but the president of the Propeller Club, which represents maritime businesses, warned that a ban would be bad for the economy.

“We have had conversation with those individuals, who will lose revenue if they’re no longer able to move the cargo,” said Whitney Croxton, president of the Propeller Club of Jacksonville.

Commissioners disagreed on what should be done.

“We have tragic car accidents every day,” Mark Devereaux, on the Jacksonville Waterways Commission. “Are we going to eliminate cars?”

So they settled on creating the subcommittee to dig deeper into the concerns on both sides of the issue.

A JaxPort administrator was there. He said the Bridgeport Barge was not part of their operation, but he did point out that there were past contracts that did bring coal ash into Jacksonville through the port. He said the current administration doesn’t support that, as the administration thinks it’s too risky.

A lobbyist for Keystone Terminals was at the meeting but told News4JAX he had no comment.

Representatives from the other companies involved in the Bridgeport Barge spill — Moran and Dann Ocean Towing — weren’t there.

While the Waterways Commission didn’t end up voting Wednesday on a resolution to ban coal ash shipments into Jacksonville, Atlantic Beach city leaders signed off earlier this week on a resolution calling for an end to coal ash shipments into Jacksonville.

About the Authors:

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

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013. She reports for and anchors The Morning Show.