Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
August 5, 2015 1:52 p.m.

Fernandina Beach City Hall
Fernandina Beach City Hall

With only Commissioner Pat Gass in opposition, the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) at its August 4, 2015 Regular Meeting voted to support a modified version of a resolution expressing the commission’s opposition to a coal transfer facility at the Port of Fernandina. Vice Mayor Johnny Miller had first broached this item with the FBCC at its July 21 meeting. At that time the FBCC declined to consider it an emergency matter and asked that it be deferred to the first meeting in August, in order to give themselves, the city attorney and city staff time to consider it.

The final text of the resolution approved by the FBCC reads:

The City of Fernandina Beach Commission resolves to strongly oppose any and all attempts by Kinder Morgan and/or the OHPA [Ocean Highway and Port Authority] to obtain an environmental permit for a coal transfer facility at the Port.

The FBCC devoted a half hour of its meeting to discussing and modifying this resolution, in addition to taking public comment.

Six members of the public, including two people from St. Marys GA, signed up to speak in support of the resolution, citing the health dangers for both humans and the marine environment posed by coal dust.

Following public comment, Vice Mayor Miller moved to approve the resolution. Commissioner Tim Poynter seconded the motion with the request that the second paragraph of the resolution be removed. That paragraph read: “to oppose the repurpose, retrofitting, investing, re-engineering or modification of any equipment that would enable the offloading, handling and transferring coal from ship to barge at the Port.” Poynter said that the language seemed unnecessary in light of the first paragraph. Miller agreed that the paragraph in question was ambiguous and agreed to amend his motion to remove it.

gass1Mayor Ed Boner recognized Commissioner Pat Gass who spoke in opposition to the motion. She said she agreed with the speakers that nobody wants coal dust. “It’s not healthy; it’s not good. It shouldn’t be here,” she said. “Good news is: they said it’s not coming. They put it in an email; they wrote it down that they have no intention of doing it. Just because we pass a resolution saying we don’t want it, doesn’t mean you get to wipe the coal dust off your hands and go about your business. We still have to be diligent. We still would have to watch the paper. They could do it any time they wanted.”

Speaking to the audience, she continued, “So if you don’t trust the government to watch them and to implement all the procedures they have in place to safeguard us, then why would you trust that this mere resolution would do anything to save us all? I think you are looking for a false sense of security.”

Gass suggested that resolution proponents go back to read the Development of Regional Impact (DRI) under which the city and the OHPA drew up terms for creation and operation of the Port 25 years ago. She cited the city’s willingness to entertain coal operations in that document. She said that she thought it was a little late to revisit that agreement and not a good idea “to poke a stick in the eye of a sleeping lion.”

She asserted, “OHPA has lived up to its side of the DRI by giving the city $50,000 per year—as they said they would. And for 25 years we have not done with it what we said we would do,” she asserted. [The original intent was that the money be invested in parking and a civic auditorium.] “What will we do,” she asked, “if they [OHPA] pass a resolution saying the city of Fernandina Beach is going to have to do what they said they would do in the beginning, or it’s all off?”

Gass went on to enumerate what she termed as “real things going on in this city today that you can worry about and fix and that need fixing. Worrying about what’s not coming—because they said it’s not coming—and if for some reason they change their mind and they decide to try it—they’d have to advertise it, get it through all kinds of committees, past all of us, and all hell would break loose.” She cited the following as clear and present dangers to the environment:

  • Contamination to stormwater that runs into the river at extreme high tides that coincide with full moons and heavy rains;
  • Excessive fertilizer run-off from lawns, which is getting into the aquifer;
  • Stormwater problems on North Fletcher that result in homes flooding and cars hydroplaning;
  • Restaurant staff washing off equipment after hours on the streets, allowing the contaminants to flow into stormwater drains that flow into the river.

“There’s much we can do,” Gass said, “but we need to deal with what’s going on as opposed to what might happen. I am not voting for this resolution, and I also think you are opening Pandora’s box in telling industry what they can’t do after the rules have already been made.”

MillerMiller spoke to what he termed “25 year-old technology” contained in the DRI with respect to handling coal. He claimed that there is no place currently moving coal in such a manner, so he was unable to visit a facility to judge the impact of the process outlined. He commended Gass for bringing up issues that he was not aware of. Regarding her dismissal of a “meager resolution,” he said he has seen the impact of such action in other situations. “What we are saying is, we resolve that this is the way we feel as a commission based upon what the people have told us.” Directing his comments to the audience, which was heavily populated with resolution supporters, he said, “Through this resolution we affirm that we have heard you, that we agree with you, and that we are putting it in writing, saying, ‘you’re right, we agree, we’ve got your back.’” He added that resolutions help in taking issues to state and federal legislators, because they represent the support of local government. He said that nothing would prevent the city from withdrawing a resolution if the problem goes away at some point.

“I agree and I’m very excited that both Kinder Morgan and the OHPA have pulled their request [for an air permit to handle coal],” he said, thanking local citizen Roy Smith for bringing that information to the FBCC’s attention. He applauded Kinder Morgan’s definitive statement that they have no plans to handle coal locally. He also commended WestRock for its commitment to environment and community. “It’s the guys who are working in these mills who are producing things,” he said. “Being able to put your hands on something and produce something that goes out worldwide through those blue collar jobs … that’s an American way of life that we can’t afford to lose. The mills serve a very strong purpose. What they’re doing at those two mills, if you’re gonna do it, that’s the way to do it. They’re an attribute to our community and I commend them for coming into us to tell us they do not intend to bring in foreign coal by barge. [This was in reference to a letter from WestRock.] … That was a major move on their part to do the right thing.”

PoynterCommissioner Poynter spoke next. “I don’t disagree with what Commissioner Gass is saying. All we are doing is basically saying the same things that [OHPA and Kinder Morgan] have said in emails. You’re saying that you’re not going to do it; we’re agreeing that you shouldn’t do it. It’s not really poking a stick in the tiger’s eye. We’re acknowledging the fact that they are not going to do it. We’re agreeing that they are not going to do it, and I’d like to call the question.”

Following the 4-1 vote, the audience broke out into applause.

Suanne Thamm 4Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.

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Steve Crounse
Steve Crounse (@guest_41955)
7 years ago

You know a couple weeks ago when the Issue of a “No Coal Transfer Resolution” was originally Broached by Commissioner Miller. I think it was Commissioner Gass who said that there was a perception by the Mills and Port that we didn’t want or need them in our Town. We need both Mills, and would like to keep our Port. You know I came away from that meeting with a perception of my own, that our Commission had abandoned their constituents. Abandoned the reason why we had elected who we did. There are many issues that we can have disagreements on with our Elected officials, that’s human nature. As long as there are two people on this earth there will be disagreements. But when it has the potential to destroy, what so many on this Island have worked so hard to build. We should all be on the same page. Commissioners, Thank you for following the lead of WestRock, and Kinder Morgan. I wish you had led. A lot of work and negotiations, in and out of the light of day, led to this. Thank you all.

Medardo Monzon
Medardo Monzon (@guest_41967)
7 years ago

Great news for our community!

Thank you Johny Miller from moving the resolution and thank you to those Commissioners who voted favorably. This is an example of how elected officials can take action in response to serious community concerns. It’s also an example of why community involvement matters.

David Olson
David Olson (@guest_42096)
7 years ago

While the passage of this resolution makes some residents happier, I agree with Pat Gass that the Commission should be working on the islands present environmental protection needs, not on a worry of what may happen in the future. I read the paper and see that coal users are converting to natural gas because it is a cheaper and cleaner fuel. Coal is an obsolete fuel. But this is just the opinion of a staunch supporter of protection of our air quality with over 47 years of industrial and government service as an environmental engineer.

David Olson
David Olson (@guest_42127)
7 years ago

Please see the article: Five myths about coal from The Washington Post at
http://wapo.st/1PbedCF

David Olson
David Olson (@guest_42132)
7 years ago

Please see the article: King Coal, Long Besieged, Is Deposed by the Market
http://nyti.ms/1KTJL13

Steve Crounse
Steve Crounse (@guest_42360)
7 years ago

David, The other part of the issue is, The Importation of Coal from Columbia S.A. which would put more West Virginia miners out of work. Westrock has Coal delivered via Rail from W.V. Another issue is the human rights violations against Drummond Coal Co. Who own the Mines in Columbia.

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