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Environment

There's a new plan to battle coal ash spills. But it doesn't include banning the waste

Barge Bridgeport Response
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It’s been almost a year since a barge transporting coal ash from Puerto Rico to a landfill in Folkston, Georgia, spilled more than 5,000 tons of the toxic industrial byproduct into the ocean off Atlantic Beach.

Jacksonville's new Coal Ash Barge Review Committee has drafted a new slate of recommendations in response to a more than 5,000-ton coal ash spill off Atlantic Beach last year.

The committee's recommendations include improving communication with the public about incidents on the coast, studying how Jacksonville's incident response plans compare to other ports in Florida, and looking into contracting with a larger tugboat contracter to response to emergencies.

Not on that list? Banning coal ash from coming into Jacksonville ports in the first place. More than a thousand people signed a petition last year calling on the city to ban coal ash, which can contain arsenic, lead and other harmful materials. 

"Pretty soon your port's not providing fertilizer, construction, food, infrastructure, steel, transport, defense, energy — any of the things that our inland neighbors need," Barker said of the idea of a coal ash ban Friday.

The barge's path through Jacksonville was largely due to other localities banning the substance. Puerto Rico banned coal ash from its landfills five years ago. Osceola County started accepting coal ash in 2019 but halted its contract in response to community backlash.

Now, thousands of tons of coal ash are shipped through private Jacksonville ports en route to a landfill in Folkston, Georgia.

A report commissioned by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection found the leaked toxins were within regulatory limits, and charged the companies’ responsible $38,000 in fines.  

But the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Northeast Florida Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation’s First joined forces in calling for a local ban of the potentially toxic industrial byproduct.

Marc Hardesty, a Jacksonville waterways commissioner and legal committee member for the St. Johns Riverkeeper, said coal ash is very different from other products coming into the port.

"This is not a commodity that is food, is fuel, is that sort of thing," Haverty said Friday. "Let's call it what it is, and what it is is a byproduct. It's trash."

The Jacksonville Waterways Commission rejected his ban plan in December, creating the Coal Ash Barge Review Committee instead.

As was apparent during Friday's meeting, most of the review committee doesn't have much interest in following through on local environmental nonprofits' plea to ban coal ash either.

Instead, they focused on how to prepare for future incidents.

Review committee chair Robert Birtalan summarized the committee's goal as answering a core question: "Is there anything that could or should be done to prevent the grounding of any vessel coming into the river no matter what the product is?"

The barge carrying the coal ash ran aground near Jacksonville last March and parked off the coast for months as crews tried to offload the cargo. In the meantime, a nor’easter tilted it to the left and spilled thousands of tons of potentially toxic coal ash.

Atlantic Beach Mayor Ellen Glasser told the new Coal Ash Barge Review Committee on Friday that this should be a lesson for Jacksonville and other public agencies.

"It sat out there for months without getting attention that it deserved," Glasser said. "While I have great regard for Florida Department of Environmental Protection, they did their job the way they were supposed to, but they did not respond quickly."

At the end of the hourlong meeting, review committee chair Birtalan summarized four recommendations moving forward: getting a copy of a Coast Guard barge incident report, exploring what other ports are doing, looking into a large response contractor, reviewing the city's resources for spill response and looking into communicating timely information to the public.

The committee will discuss the recommendations with the full Waterways Commission in April before any changes go before the full City Council.

Copyright 2022 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

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