Batteries Among Lost Ship Cargo Pose Public Risk, Coast Guard Says

Beachgoers and boaters could be at risk of chemical burns from batteries that were among cargo lost at sea between Cape Canaveral and Palm Beach over the weekend, the U.S. Coast Guard warned Tuesday.

Wet-cell batteries -- commonly used to power cars -- were in at least one of up to 25 cargo containers that may have fallen overboard from the 340-foot Columbia Elizabeth, according to the Coast Guard.

The barge was headed from Port Canaveral, Fla. to Puerto Rico until it was diverted to the Port of Palm Beach on Sunday after the crew of its tug boat, the Capt Latham, saw several cargo containers hanging over the side, according to the Coast Guard.

On Tuesday, crews at the port were still unloading the hundreds of containers that remained onboard, taking inventory to try to determine what was lost when containers started sliding into the water.

At least nine containers are confirmed so far to have fallen overboard, according to the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard's aerial search continued Tuesday between Palm Beach and Cape Canaveral to try to find the missing containers, while investigators also tried to learn what went wrong with the vessel.

TOTE Maritime, of Jacksonville, which chartered the Columbia Elizabeth on Tuesday, directed questions about the missing containers to the Coast Guard.

The exact types of batteries that went missing and any other cargo that was lost as well as why it went overboard remains under investigation, according to company spokesman Michael Hanson.

TOTE was in the news during the fall when its cargo ship El Faro went missing Oct. 1 during Hurricane Joaquin with 33 people aboard.

Wet-cell batteries can contain mercury, lead, cadmium and nickel, which can contaminate the environment when not disposed of properly, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Batteries dumped at sea can also pose a pollution threat to Florida's reefs and other marine habitat, according to the Stuart-based Florida Oceanographic Society.

But the Coast Guard in a statement released Tuesday said the lost batteries "are not believed to pose a serious environmental risk."

Yet the Coast Guard warned that batteries could cause chemical burns and boaters and beachgoers should not approach or open any containers found in the water or on shore.

Instead, people who find cargo were asked to contact the Coast Guard via VHF marine radio channel 16, the Coast Guard National Response Center at 800-424-8802, or local fire or police departments.

As the search for the containers continued Tuesday, reports trickled in from beachgoers about finding suspected lost cargo.

In Jensen Beach, waterfront diners questioned whether large red boxes found on shore came from containers that went overboard. And Florida Today reported Tuesday that hundreds of cans of coffee washed onto the beach in Indialantic, near Melbourne.

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