Commentary: What’s the Risk at Jasmine Street? And Why is it a Mystery?

By Mike Phillips


Somehow, on July 11, the Jasmine Street beach access and some other inland water bodies in Nassau County were put on what’s called the state’s  “303(d) Impaired List.” This apparently was done without a phone call or official notice sent to the city or county.

Now, let’s start putting this essay into plain English. An “impaired” area means you should stay out of there, or something very bad might happen to you. In this case, “bad” means you could get very sick. So for more than five months, nobody was told that using the Jasmine Street access might make them sick. And people living in the area weren’t told that they also might be at risk.

According to a Florida Department of Environmental Protection spreadsheet, between 2008 and 2019, 331 water samples were taken at the Jasmine access. The tests were conducted and results verified by the Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories in Jacksonville. Their results say that, depending on the sample, there were between 3 and 252 units of enterococci per 100 ml of water at depths of 1½ ft below the surface during that time. Anything below 70 is considered acceptable for swimming. Beyond that, the Department of Health starts getting worried, and at 252, “worry” doesn’t begin to describe the Department of Health’s concerns. Therefore, this is not a new issue. Just a hidden issue that has surfaced.

According to Kevin O’Donnell, the program administrator for the state’s water quality program, Jasmine Street was most recently assessed as part of the 2020 – 2022 biennial assessment – although the assessment used data from 2008 through May 2020. Based on that data, the Jasmine access got added to the  list of “impaired waters for bacteria” last July. Does that make you wonder why it took so long? And what the situation is right now? Read on.

But first, let’s ask where this enterococci comes from. The word means, roughly, in the gut. It is an indication of fecal material in water and, therefore, of the possible presence of disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. These pathogens can sicken beach swimmers and others who use rivers and streams for recreation or eating shellfish or fish. Potential health effects can include diseases of the skin, eyes, ears, gut and respiratory tract. (E. coli also relates to the gut.)

The important thing for non-bureaucrats is, why wasn’t the beach access shut down if the water quality was impaired? Where do the state advisories go if they aren’t being sent to the city where the problem exists? O’Donnell said, “We intend to reach out to Nassau County Department of Health to discuss their monitoring efforts.” Sounds good, but that’s not the city where the problem exists. And when you know that there has been a five-month lag, it sounds like something else. Something like infuriating.

The bureaucratic maze is especially concerning because in order to receive notifications from the state environmental people, you must sign up for the notifications as a stakeholder. However, if you don’t know about the notifications, how would you know you need to sign up to get them? That seems to be the situation for the city.

That is all the background we have right now for this sad story. But before you throw your hands up, consider this: When the bureaucrats are failing us, we still have us: the people. And in this community, when the people are needed, they tend to stand up and volunteer.

So here’s a proposal: Let’s let these lollygagging bureaucrats plod along while we take action. What is needed?

#1 Immediate, up-to-the-minute testing at Jasmine Street.

#2 An immediate investigation into the ongoing source of biological polllution around the Jasmine Street area. Who knows? It could just be one bad septic system.

#3 A way to provide regular testing – and reporting to the whole community — of the status at Jasmine Street until that particular problem has been solved.

#4 Regular testing at every other beach access – and also every inland waterway where people swim, kayak, fish or just wade around looking for oysters.

#5 Adjustable signs, like the rip tide warning signs, that advise about the water’s biological safety.

#6 And – most important – a good, high-functioning citizen organization to make those things happen. Fortunately, we have good examples of such an organization on either side of us: the St. Marys Riverkeepers to the north and the St. Johns Riverkeepers to the south. They are part of a 15-member network of Waterkeepers in Florida. Let’s tap into them for expertise and training.

#7 We’ll need to raise some funds for testing equipment and supplies.

Can all that happen? We think so. But hit the comments button and tell us what you think. And stay tuned. The story isn’t over.

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Mary Ann Howat
Mary Ann Howat(@mahowat)
1 year ago

A long time ago when I first moved here there was a pipe from the mill that carried something liquid from the mill to the ocean. I believe the mill may have access on paper for this area of carriage. The reason I remember is that persons would get caught at the exit area of the pipe in the ocean.

Pat Foster-Turley
Pat Foster-Turley(@pat-f-t)
1 year ago
Reply to  Mary Ann Howat

And in times awhile ago people could feel “trembling earth” above the pipeline beyond the high school.

Clint Rich
Clint Rich (@guest_66696)
1 year ago
Reply to  Mary Ann Howat

The pipeline came out at Maryland Ave. about 1000 ft. North of Jasmine

Robert Warner
Robert Warner (@guest_66669)
1 year ago

Beware of being “gamed” by this. The weir that divides the northern (salt water)from the southern (brackish water) sides of the Egan’s Creek Greenway is just to the West of the Dune line on Jasmine. Nothing happens around here by chance.

Pat Foster-Turley
Pat Foster-Turley(@pat-f-t)
1 year ago

This is a well written article that clearly explains the complicated situation at the Jasmine Street beach access. Thanks Mike and your sources for putting this dangerous situation in “real English” for us. This is a call for action that is sorely needed!

Diane LoCastro
Diane LoCastro (@guest_66672)
1 year ago

Thank you for the insightful reporting on this concerning issue! We are new to this area and it is so beautiful, we need to keep it that way!

wayne cochran
wayne cochran (@guest_66673)
1 year ago

Wow – an important article for many reasons. We have a government system that is broken, both in keeping the public safe as well as informed regarding the risks in a timely basis. We have a continuing environmental issue with real impact to the health of people exposed to enterococci and clearly no defined solutions for any of this.
So, while the “ lollygagging bureaucrats plod along”, let me know how I can support the ‘Amelia Island Beachkeepers’ by volunteering and monetary support.

Robert S. Warner, Jr.
Robert S. Warner, Jr. (@guest_66695)
1 year ago
Reply to  wayne cochran

Best government around is our local government. Beware of the motives of those that want to neuter it.

Thomas Lohman
Thomas Lohman (@guest_66674)
1 year ago

Since you mentioned “wading around looking for oysters”, your readers should be aware that harvesting of shellfish is not allowed in Nassau County. It’s been that way for years and the state has no plans to conduct the tests or studies that would change this rule. Contaminated oysters have long been an issue and Gus Gerbing filed a lawsuit against the mills due to his commercial oyster beds being contaminated. Many longtime residents probably remember when fish sometimes tasted like turpentine from pollution. The mills are much cleaner and less polluting today.

Sam Boyd
Sam Boyd(@ssboydaol-com)
1 year ago

The probably source if not a septic tank discharge could be “grey water” which is sink or shower discharge. The county health department may have the authority to flush dye through plumbing in area homes to see if it shows up in problem area. Good article Mike.

Lauri deGaris
Lauri deGaris (@guest_66680)
1 year ago

There are other areas of the City that have poor water quality issues as well. A few months ago the slough that runs near Escambia St tested positive for ecoli contamination too. Nassau County Tax payers are spending millions to eliminate septic tank use on the south end of the island. The same should be happening in the City.

Also, the proposed RV park on Sadler Road wants to use septic tanks for their new development. This should NOT be allowed under any circumstance.

Mark Tomes
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
1 year ago
Reply to  Lauri deGaris

The City of Fernandina Beach should make eliminating septic systems a priority over annexing properties that want to tap into the city’s water snd sewer systems.

DAVE LOTT(@dave-l)
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Tomes

Mark, I certainly agree with annexation of the septic systems but why do these need to be separate objectives? The City only accepts voluntary annexation requests. If a property owner that is not in the City limits but is in the City water/sewer service area they can request to be tapped in to the City’s supply, but the City cannot accept the annexation request until the property meets the requirement that it must be contiguous to a property that is within the city limits.

Richard A Schweitzer
Richard A Schweitzer (@guest_66684)
1 year ago

Thanks for the reporting. I’m no expert in the testing, but I can learn. Count me in on helping

Donald Pollock
Donald Pollock (@guest_66685)
1 year ago

This is an excellent article, but it is not clear how citizens can get involved with the two Riverkeepers to see what they are doing about this problem, and to participate in the solution.

Denise Hall
Denise Hall (@guest_66689)
1 year ago

We love to vacation there! So very pleased to see that y’all are serious about the upkeep and hygiene of your community beaches and waters.

Tankel Law Group
Tankel Law Group(@tankellawgroup)
1 year ago

We bought a vacation home here 20 years ago and I wondered why the whole island didn’t vote to incorporate like Sanibel (those residents did, Captiva didn’t). The answer I got was that “people don’t trust the city.” The more things change…

DAVE LOTT(@dave-l)
1 year ago

Wasn’t so much that there wasn’t trust, it was the non-city property owners didn’t want the higher tax rate of the city (primarily due to the city’s police and fire/rescue protection) as well as the stricter building/zoning restrictions.

Jay Friday
Jay Friday (@guest_66693)
1 year ago

I surf fish at beach 6 on the north end. I do notice that there are times when small slivers of paper become entangled in my fishing line. Sometimes you can see these slivers of paper on the beach and in the tidal pools at low tide. When walking the beach I have seen the slivers of paper as far north as North Beach. I wonder is this trim that is being dumped by the mills? Is it being pumped into the ocean via the old pipeline that is shown on the charts? Is other matter being dumped along with the paper slivers?

I do agree that there is no reason for new septic systems to be permitted. It should be mandated that all new building be on the sewer system. The city should make a concerted effort to reduce the existing septic systems. This could be funded by taxing the septic systems the same way and at the same amount as those who use the sewer system. The tax should be placed into a fund that would assist those property owners for frontage fees and tap in fees when a sewer line is built. This tax would be part of the water bill and help encourage everyone to use the sewer system.

Jeffrey Bunch
Jeffrey Bunch(@j-bunch)
1 year ago
Reply to  Jay Friday

Neither mill makes paper. The one with the old pipeline (Rayonier) make specialty cellulose fiber that looks nothing like paper, and the pipeline has not been used for years.

Chris subleski
Chris subleski(@oldtimehockey)
1 year ago

I’m in.

anne (@guest_66703)
1 year ago

Good information!!!THANK YOU – new to the area so would like to know how to best keep up to date and offer assistance.

John (@guest_66704)
1 year ago

Having recently purchased a home in Amelia Park and using Jasmine Beach all summer, this information is extremely troubling and makes us wonder if we made the right choice locating here. We just assumed (our mistake) that all the homes along the beach were required to use City sewage and any old septics would have been abandoned.

Ray Mooney
Ray Mooney (@guest_66706)
1 year ago

Contacting the St. Mary’s Riverkeeper is a good starting point. For the past several years this volunteer organization has routinely tested our inland waters for e-coli and chemicals. Most volunteers usually take samples from the shorelines while the Amelia Island Sailing Club takes samples from local rivers using members’ boats.

Rebecca (@guest_66707)
1 year ago

How about JEA failing to provide a 2022 water quality report for consumers that is due July 1 of every year? Yes, it’s not the beach water quality testing, but our drinking water is affected too from pollution. The mill’s pollution is monitored by the Toxic Release Inventory on the EPA website.