City committee reviews barge crash off Atlantic Beach that sent coal ash into ocean

Massive barge ran aground last March, spilling at least 9,300 tons of coal ash

JACKSONVILLE, Fla – A year after a massive barge ran aground, spilling coal ash into the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Hanna Park, a committee with the city of Jacksonville is reviewing the incident.

It took three months to get the half-submerged, 418-foot barge off Atlantic Beach removed and towed to the Jacksonville Shipyards.

The News4JAX I-TEAM found out that barge, traveling from Puerto Rico into Jacksonville, leaked at least 9,300 tons of coal ash when it ran aground. The Sky 4 helicopter monitored the wreck from above.

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Samples taken by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection revealed traces of arsenic, lead and mercury. While the chemicals are toxic on their own, the EPA does not classify coal ash as hazardous.

The I-TEAM discovered that private companies routinely brought ash waste from coal-fired plants in Puerto Rico into a private dock in Jacksonville. The ash is then hauled by private vendors for a number of uses.

Atlantic Beach Mayor Ellen Glasser monitored the situation closely and has been a vocal speaker at meetings about the accident. The city of Atlantic Beach passed a resolution calling for an end to coal ash shipments.

“It just stayed there for months and months,” she said. “If something it happened just in a few days, it probably would not have gotten much attention. But the fact that the salvage operation just couldn’t right it, just couldn’t get it out of there, it just prompted more and more questions from people that lived at the beach and our visitors.”

In response to the incident, several environmental groups -- including the St. Johns Riverkeeper, Sierra Club and the Surfrider Foundation -- have called for a ban on coal waste coming into Jacksonville ports.

A part of that effort includes a petition that has garnered close to 1,000 signatures, nearly halfway to its goal of 2,000.

However, the subcommittee voted against a ban on coal ash shipments citing it was bad for business.

“It wouldn’t be prudent on our part to ban some product that is not even a hazardous material because there are some businesses that use the product for making drywall, gypsum, concrete, blocks,” said Jacksonville Waterways Commission Chairman Robert Birtalan.

Birtalan said the committee is looking at what could have been done to prevent the collision, how the response was handled and how to better keep the public informed. They met for hours Friday morning at Jacksonville City Hall.

“There’s a lot of people that are very worried about it and they need to know,” said Jacksonville Waterways Commission Ray Pringle, who believes the government took too long to respond and contain the situation.

He said residents deserve answers about what happened.

More meetings are planned before the subcommittee brings its findings to Jacksonville City Council.


About the Authors:

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