Commission planning ahead to prevent, respond to next coal ash spill

I-TEAM: Barge ran aground off Mayport in 2021, spilling more than 9,300 tons of coal ash

Aerials show the Bridgeport refloated and attached to tug boats that will tow it into port. (WJXT/Sky 4)

Atlantic Beach city leaders and the Jacksonville Waterways Commission have both gone on record with resolutions calling for an end to coal ash shipments in the wake of a grounding last year that spilled 9,300 tons of coal ash off the Bridgeport Barge into the ocean.

But in the meantime, the Waterways Commission has some more immediate changes in mind to prevent -- and respond -- to another spill.

That includes improved real-time communication, lobbying for additional buoys and navigation marks at the end of the jetties, reviewing current resources that can respond, and checking with other ports as to what kind of spill response plan they have in place.

The Coast Guard released an investigative brief on the grounding that pointed to a lack of training as the cause.

The barge was being towed by a tugboat that was entering the St. Johns River by the jetties in March 2021. The Coast Guard brief states the tugboat was switching tow lines when it lost control of the barge, and it ran aground on the south jetty. The impact caused hull damage and flooded several holding areas. The barge was pulled off the rocks, and it remained in place for weeks, eventually spilling more than 9,000 tons of coal ash into the Atlantic Ocean, the News4JAX I-TEAM learned.

An expanded Coast Guard report found that the tugboat Margery was being guided through the jetties for the first time by the ship’s master, who had been provided no route familiarization by the company beforehand.

The report said “the master’s pass down consisted of a walkthrough of the vessel totaling approximately one hour and no discussion of route specifics. If the company had provided the master route familiarization training, this could have prevented the Bridgeport from becoming grounded.”

The Coast Guard is still investigating referrals for enforcement action against the tugboat owner.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection collected dozens of samples of seawater and sediment around the barge and determined there were only trace amounts of toxic materials in the coal ash that spilled into the ocean.

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