St. Johns RIVERKEEPER, the Northeast Florida Sierra Club and Surfrider Foundation’s First Coast Chapter have serious concerns about the potential risks posed to our beaches, the St. Johns River, and our residents from toxic coal ash that is being transported through the Port of Jacksonville.

As a result, we have launched a petition calling for the Jacksonville City Council and Mayor Lenny Curry to stop accepting toxic coal ash from Puerto Rico or any other community.

In March, a barge carrying coal ash from Puerto Rico crashed into the jetties near the mouth of the St. Johns River. Up to 9,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the surrounding waters as a result. While sediment and water samples collected nearly two weeks after the spill indicated no signs of adverse effects, this incident demonstrates the danger of transporting toxic waste on our local waterways.

Coal ash is a waste product from the burning of coal in coal-fired power plants that contains toxic contaminants like mercury, cadmium, lead, selenium and arsenic. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “these contaminants can pollute waterways, ground water, drinking water, and the air,” endangering wildlife and human health.

“Utilities must be required to take responsibility for their own waste and should not be allowed to put other communities at risk with their pollution, especially those who had nothing to do with producing it,” insisted Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper. “Pollution doesn’t just go away when it leaves the property of a coal-fired power plant or a wastewater treatment facility. It becomes someone else’s problem.”

Due to serious health concerns, the Puerto Rico legislature passed laws in 2017 banning the disposal of coal ash in its landfills. As a result, the power company AES began shipping its coal ash on barges to a landfill in Osceola County, Florida. Residents in Osceola successfully stopped coal ash from being disposed of in their community in 2019, so now the toxic waste from AES is coming into the St. Johns River and Jacksonville. Barges carrying the coal ash travel nearly 18 miles up the St. Johns to the Keystone Terminal where it is then offloaded and transported to a landfill in Folkston, Georgia.

“Those who recreate in the First Coast’s waters and our wildlife could be directly exposed to and affected by the toxic metals in this coal ash and the communities impacted should have a voice over what is transported and how,” says Matt Dobbins, Chair of First Coast Surfrider. “We are concerned that even short-term exposure, such as in a day surfing at the Poles surf spot, could potentially have negative health impacts. Coal ash exposure has been linked to nausea, vomiting, gastrointestinal illnesses, impacts to the nervous system, and worse. It is a public health issue where the public should be alerted and concerned, especially when it’s banned elsewhere.”

“Studies have documented high levels of chemicals, such as selenium, in the tissues of fish where coal ash has been discharged into waterways. In addition, as the ash sinks to the bottom, it smothers aquatic organisms and plants essential to the health of the ecosystem. It’s all connected,” Rinaman explained.

Concerned citizens can view our Coal Ash Fact Sheet to learn more. All are welcome to participate and sign the online petition to urge our elected officials to protect our waterways, as other communities have done before us.

“Importing coal ash waste through the Jacksonville Port produces limited financial benefit, while putting area beaches and waterways at risk,” explains Logan Cross, Chair of Sierra Club of Northeast Florida. “This issue is also symptomatic of a bigger problem.  Burning coal has become an antiquated, inefficient way of generating electricity, and we, the citizens, end up dealing with the costs associated with the greenhouse gas emissions and waste. That is why we are committed to the replacement of coal-fired power plants with cost-effective renewable energy alternatives.”