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City Marina: City Hall Buys the Wrong Study

Father of Fernandina Beach City Marina believes City has the wrong priorities ...

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By Bob Allison, 3-11-23

Buying expensive studies is what City Hall does to give the appearance it is actually doing something to improve the City’s waterfront.  The most recent study, prepared by Mr. Robert Semmes at ATM Engineering, cost $72,000 and concluded the City marina’s basin silts up and will continue to silt up.  Didn’t we already know this? Was Mr. Semmes telling us something we have all known for decades really worth $72,000?  If it looks like pork, smells like pork and tastes like pork, it is pork.  The City bought the wrong study.  The study that needs to be obtained is an analysis of the contaminants and industrial heavy metals existing in the mud banks that surface along the marina’s shorelines at low tide.  The most basic analysis for lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury can be obtained for around seven hundred dollars.  This cost is less than one percent of what it cost the City for Mr. Semmes to tell us the marina silts in. A brief recap of the history of the City’s marina site can explain why the mud at the marina may be the most toxic soil in all of Nassau County.

Steam locomotives powered by burning coal were in wide use in Fernandina Beach for almost fifty years from around 1870 to 1920.  Where the marina now sits, heavy docks supported rail lines for train loads of lumber to be delivered directly to the sides of sailing ships to be loaded as cargo for shipment to Europe. If you look at almost any picture of one of these old locomotives you will a notice an “ash pan” positioned directly under the boiler where the coal was burned.  This ash pan had to be emptied after trips between the log yards inland and the marina basin.  For nearly half a century this ash was routinely dumped into the river at the exact location of the City’s marina.  Coal ash is known to include arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxic chemicals. Also understand that in the years between 1870 and 1920,  the City’s marina site did not look at all like it looks today.  Black smoke and soot hung heavy in the air as coal fired steamships, tug boats and locomotives bustled about the City’s waterfront completing their daily assignments.   For more than five continuous decades,  the City’s marina site was the very epicenter of all heavy industry in Nassau County.  During these early years of America’s industrialization, heavy industry was known to be careless with the waste it disposed of into the environment.

In 1938 the Kraft Corporation opened the first pulp and paper mill which is now WestRock.  Soon thereafter the Fernandina Pulp and Paper Company opened a second mill which is now Rayonier.  For years to follow, so many chemicals were disposed of into the river. The shrimp boats tied up along the City’s waterfront had no requirement for their bottoms to be painted with antifouling paint.  The water was toxic enough to kill whatever organisms that might have tried to attach themselves to the hulls of these boats.  Nassau County’s prosperous oystering industry had to be closed because of the dangerous water quality.  It remains closed. 

New EPA rules, which came into effect in the sixties, dramatically improved the water quality in the Amelia River causing the shrimp boats docked at the marina site to begin using antifouling paints. Prior to any regulation of what could be used in these paints, they included many of the most poisonous chemicals then known.  Some of these were “ablative” paints meant to continually shed layers of paint to expose new layers of undiluted poison to discourage the attachment of marine organisms to the boats’ hulls. All of this poison settled along with the coal ash and other chemicals directly into the soil at the marina.   For four decades during the twentieth century between the fifties and the mid-eighties, thousands of gallons of fuel were both sold and spilled from a marine fueling station which was located where what is now the near middle of the current marina basin.

The infamous FB City Marina mudbank

An analysis of the contaminants in the mud on the City-owned waterfront will likely qualify the exposed mud to be designated a “brownfield”.  The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently offered a program for grants up to $800,000 for the mitigation of such sites.  Unfortunately the City missed the deadline of November 22, 2022 to apply for one of these grants.  Remediation for identified toxic sites includes what is referred to as “capping”.  This is a simple process where one foot or more of soil is used to cover up the toxic soil.  In my proposal to build a waterfront park over the mud banks on the City’s waterfront, several feet of new clean soil can bury the poisons in the exposed mud banks at the marina forever.

In the February 1 issue of the News-leader. Commissioner Ross made the statement: “the boardwalk decking in front of Parking Lot B and connecting to the uplands needs replacement.  The likely cost exceeds $400,000”.  I respectfully disagree with Commissioner Ross on this.  The boardwalk sits directly over the largest exposed mudbank at the marina.  On hot sunny summer days when this mud heats up, noxious fumes evaporate up from its surface and into the air at the very location of the boardwalk Commissioner Ross is proposing to replace. Notice… not one single species of marine or aquatic plant life grows on this mud bank.  There is a reason why.

Recent transplants to Fernandina Beach, including current and past City decision makers, may have no knowledge of the long history of the use of the City-owned waterfront. I have complained that their decisions have wasted millions of dollars on the marina but the public’s exposure to the poison that exists in the mud banks is a more serious matter. This is a completely unaddressed existing threat to public health.  If City Hall wants, for the first time in a long time to make a smart decision, it can spend tiny money and order a Phase 2 Contamination Study of the contaminants in the mud shown in the picture above.  When its results are made public, many may begin to realize the wisdom of my proposal to fill in over the mud to create new land at the marina.  The City needs new land for a waterfront park.  It also needs to manage the City’s waterfront property with the intent to protect public health.

Previous Bob Allison city marina articles: 

Bob Allison, a resident of Fernandina Beach, is the father of the FB City Marina

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Citizens Journal Florida.

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