Ship Carrying Coal Ash From Puerto Rico To Georgia Spills ‘Very Nasty Stuff’ Off Jax Coast
On March 14, 2021, a cargo ship called the Bridgeport departed Guayama, Puerto Rico, bound for a private port in Jacksonville.
The ship’s cargo was 12,000 tons of coal ash — an industrial byproduct that can contain, among other things, arsenic, lead, boron, and lithium. It was a load equivalent to about 800 standard garbage trucks.
On March 22, the Bridgeport ran aground about a mile south of the mouth of the St. Johns River. It listed to the left in about 30 feet of water, its hull submersed in soft sand.
In the coming days, maritime diving, salvage and towing companies would assess the damage and develop a plan to transfer the Bridgeport’s cargo and refloat the listing barge. An ocean salvage crane called the Farrell 256 arrived in Jacksonville on April 8, and the shipper brought in a 2,000-ton hopper barge called the JMC 171 to receive the cargo from the Bridgeport and transport it to land for safe disposal.
Between mid-April and early May, more than 4,000 tons of flaky gray ash would be loaded off the Bridgeport and onto the JMC 171 and carted back to shore.
Mayors from Atlantic Beach and Jacksonville Beach have visited the site and were comforted by what they saw.
“We’re fully confident that the recovery operation is prioritizing the health and safety of the community and the environment,” said Kevin Hogencamp, deputy city manager for Atlantic Beach. “Naturally, that’s been our top concern from day one, and I simply can’t imagine being more impressed with the competency, professionalism and diligence of the unified response.”
But on May 16, official Bridgeport response communications showed that rough weather conditions had shifted the barge.
“While current conditions do not allow personnel to board the Bridgeport at this time to do a full physical inspection, it appears that the barge has now settled in twenty feet of water,” wrote Jim Lawrence, the spokesman for the recovery effort. “Cargo may have also washed out of the hopper.”
‘A Silent Enemy’
Even before Lawrence’s notice that coal ash may have spilled into the coastal waterway, a newspaper editor in Puerto Rico was sounding the alarm.
“‘Catastrophic’ risk,” wrote Omar Alfonso. “If an ash discharge occurs in the area where the Bridgeport remains stranded, the environmental consequences could be disastrous.”
Alfonso’s award-winning weekly paper La Perla Del Sur has since 2015 been investigating AES, the operator of the coal-fired power plant whose coal ash was carried aboard the Bridgeport.
AES opened its Guayama plant in 2002. One of the conditions of its contract with the island government, Alfonso said, was that it would never dispose of its coal ash anywhere on the territory.
“They started the export to the Dominican Republic,” Alfonso explained. “30,000 tons was disposed of in the dockyards of a really poor community in Arroyo Barril, and that material was exposed to the elements of a tropical beach for more than four years.”
In collaboration with Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism, Alfonso would document increases in fetal malformations, miscarriages, and unexplained medical issues among the people of Arroyo Barril following the arrival of AES’ waste.
The people of the Dominican Republic wouldn’t take it any longer, Alfonso said.
“After riots in that country and serious problems with the environmental impact, AES started to dispose of their coal ash, around 250,000 tons of it annually, in Puerto Rico,” he said.
A deliberate speaker, Alfonso couldn’t hide the emotion in his voice. It was a betrayal of AES’ promise to the island community, Alfonso said, and one that was not easily forgotten.
In response to Alfonso’s investigations, AES Puerto Rico issued a series of billboards and advertisements across the island proclaiming the safety of its coal ash.
“Did you know? Most of the heavy metals in coal ash are found in the vitamins you take every day,” read one.
“Lies contaminate,” read another. “We don’t.”
“They have been trying to create a false image of the dangers of coal ash,” Alfonso said.” But with my colleagues and the support from our local newspaper, which is a small newspaper, we’ve been very successful in making the people of Puerto Rico aware of this reality and the hazard of the coal ash and how it has been disposed of.”
8,000 Tons Unaccounted For
On Sunday, May 16, the day after the Bridgeport shifted and it became known that some of the coal ash had washed out of the barge, salvage teams met to figure out how to proceed. They requested a dive team to look around below sea level; they wanted someone to use a sonar system to develop an image of the seafloor to find some missing hatch covers.
By Wednesday, an “unknown amount” of the ship’s cargo had entered the water, and the ship’s owner and the towing company were looking for an environmental research firm that could help them determine how widespread the damage might be. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection asked the companies for a sample from the seabed to analyze it “for indications of smothering of natural bottom communities and other wildlife impacts.”
The cargo aboard the ship goes by the trade name Agremax. It’s a combination of multiple types of byproducts from burning of coal for energy, which are then hydrated, dried, and turned into 2-inch gray flakes. AES has marketed Agremax as a base for road or sidewalk construction, and for use in building materials like gypsum board.
The Environmental Protection Agency does not consider Agremax or coal ash to be hazardous waste materials. On the official response page, spokesperson Jim Lawrence wrote,
“The EPA describes cargo material as inert, inorganic material primarily composed of elemental oxides (silica, calcium) commonly found in dirt. … Past analysis for metals in the material have met regulatory standards. However, sampling from this specific occurrence is needed to confirm regulatory standards are met in this instance.”
Quinton White, the Executive Director of the Marine Science Research Institute at Jacksonville University, doesn’t buy it.
“Coal ash is very nasty stuff,” he said. “It’s loaded with all kinds of materials that are left over from the burning of coal, quite literally from A to Z, from aluminum to zinc.”
When it came to regulating coal ash, White believes the EPA bowed to the pressure of the coal industry.
“Is it hazardous? Yes. Is it a waste? Yes. But according to the EPA, it’s not a hazardous waste. It’s purely a bureaucratic, legal classification that has nothing to do with reality,” he said.
When Agremax enters the water, it leaches into the food chain, he said.
“The phytoplankton pick it up, and then the zooplankton eat it, and then the little fish eat it, and then the bigger fish eat the little fish, and then we eat the big fish,” he said.
With the Bridgeport listing left at around a 26 degree angle, on Tuesday, May 25, salvage crews tried to get the ship perpendicular again by ballasting the starboard side — in other words, loading heavy material into the right side of the ship to balance it out. But the easterly winds were strong, and the waves were high. The ballasting did tilt the ship 3 degrees to the right, but it also pushed it even deeper into the sand.
On May 28, divers found “trace amounts” of Agremax on the seafloor.
Regulatory Gray Zone
Jim Konopasek is a naval architect who lives on the beach in Ponte Vedra. He’s been watching the Bridgeport salvage effort out his window.
“While most ships are subdivided into compartments, this barge is called a hopper barge, and about 350 feet of its length are a completely open cargo bay,” he said.
Konopasek said that coal ash can be transported in this kind of a barge precisely because the EPA does not regulate coal ash as a hazardous material.
“Coal ash stands in a regulatory limbo as to its classification for handling and disposal,” Konopasek said.
The Coast Guard is responsible for regulating which type of ship can transport types of cargo, and under its guidelines, he said, the Bridgeport is appropriate for transporting coal ash.
He said the Bridgeport “possesses pretty much the absolute minimum protection against damage and outflow of cargo. Accordingly, until such time that the USCG categorizes the coal ash for a higher degree of protection, the barge Bridgeport was compliant.”
In response to questions from WJCT News, Lt. j.g. Lynette Thompson of the Coast Guard Jacksonville’s Incident Management Division said, “The Coast Guard is conducting an investigation into the incident and will determine if any further actions are required. This investigation could result in various outcomes, which might include recommending regulatory changes.”
Marine biologist White said that because the EPA does not classify coal ash as a “hazardous material,” companies like AES save money at every step of the way.
“It makes it much, much cheaper to handle, because you don’t have to do all the safeguards that are necessary for hazardous material,” he said. “This is why it can be hauled on a barge, trucked up to Georgia and put in a landfill.”
Destination: Chesser Island
After communities in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Osceola County, Florida, rallied to stop AES from dumping coal ash in their communities, the energy company began dumping the stuff in Charlton County, Georgia, in a private landfill owned by Waste Management, one of the largest players in the waste and recycling industry.
Incidentally, AES CEO Andres Gluski is also on the board of Waste Management.
According to a 2020 investigation by Georgia public radio station WABE, Chesser Island has received as much as 1.3 million tons of coal ash. Waste disposal fees at Chesser Island make up about 18% of Charlton County’s total budget, making it the county’s second-biggest revenue source, behind property taxes.
Laura Early is the Satilla Riverkeeper; her job is advocating for the health of drinking water and groundwater in much of southern Georgia, including Charlton County.
She said there’s a lot of coal ash in Georgia, some from Georgia’s own coal plants and some from other places, like Puerto Rico, trucked in because of Georgia’s welcoming environment for waste disposal.
“One of the problems is that there's a lot of coal ash that’s stored in unlined landfills close to waterways,” she said. “Coal ash is toxic, and there’s a lot of bad stuff that will leach into waterways, rivers, lakes, drinking water. The ideal situation is it’s disposed of in a lined and capped landfill, which helps minimize those toxins’ getting into water.”
She said the Chesser Island landfill is lined — though even lined landfills can have leaks and spills.
It’s a tough position for a water advocate to be in: Early knows that as risky as it is to have coal ash in Charlton County, it’s better than it might be in other places.
“There are no safe places to store coal ash on a tiny island. Blocking that coal ash from being stored in some sort of safe manner would be wrong. So we’re not going to say, ‘Puerto Rico, you have to deal with your own coal ash, even though you don’t have a way to store it in a way that keeps your people safe,’” she said.
Ruth Santiago is an attorney who has represented Puerto Rican communities in their efforts to fight AES. She said she once took a trip following the path of coal from mines in South America, where miners died in industrial accidents and from occupational diseases like black lung, to the beaches of the Dominican Republic where untreated, exposed coal byproducts had left vulnerable people with permanent health problems. She called it “coal’s death route.”
“The very idea that AES built a coal-fired power plant right at the dawn of the 21st century, when there were so many alternatives to energy generation, is tragic. By then we all knew the health impacts of burning coal to generate energy, and certainly people were aware that coal plants generated a whole lot of coal ash waste and we needed to have a place to put that, and it would never have been 100% recyclable. It just never made sense,” Santiago said.
Puerto Rican environmental groups are asking the legislature to terminate AES’ electricity generation contract before it ends in 2027.
As of June 4, the Barge Bridgeport remains grounded about a mile south of the St. Johns River, with some 8,000 tons of coal ash unaccounted for.