Environmentalists Again Warn of Widespread Coral Damage in Port Everglades Expansion Project

Port Everglades is the third busiest cruise port and 11th busiest freight port in the nation. And it's about to get busier with plans to deepen and widen the port under way. In 2007, the Broward County Board of County Commissioners approved the Port's Master/Vision Plan, which included a five-year capital improvement plan and ten- and 20-year Vision Plans, which has around $1.6 billion in capital investments.

The overall plan was, among other refurbishments, to restructure berths to accommodate larger cruise, cargo, and petroleum ships and expand cruise terminals to allow for mega-cruise ships to dock.

But for years, environmentalists have warned that such an expansion would seriously harm the surrounding coral, especially after the Port of Miami's own expansion and dredging earlier this year destroyed and smothered huge chunks of coral in sediment by the Army Corps of Engineers. Of greater concern was the loss of staghorn, a type of coral listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. 

Following a court battle with Miami Waterkeeper, a Miami-based nonprofit organization that advocates for South Florida’s watershed and wildlife, the corps agreed to pay more than $400,000 to rescue some hundred colonies of staghorn coral that remained.

As it turns out, the corps underestimated the amount of coral that lived in the area of the dredging, which led to multiple species of coral never being moved or replanted from the area.

The damage had clearly been done, with hundreds of acres of coral being smothered during the Port of Miami Deep Dredge.

Coral killed by sediment from the Port of Miami Deep Dredge.
Coral killed by sediment from the Port of Miami Deep Dredge.
photo courtesy Florida Department of Environmental Protection
Dying coral.
Dying coral.
photo courtesy Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Now Miami Waterkeeper and other environmentalists are setting their sites on Port Everglades so the same mistakes aren't repeated. The group, along with several businesses, environmental organizations, and the Center for Biological Diversity, have sent the Army Corps of Engineers a 15-page letter demanding that the expansion plans for the port be reevaluated. The letter details what the group calls the corps' "multiple failures to protect coral reef resources during the Port of Miami Deep Dredge Project." 

The letter goes on to say that the corps is not learning from those mistakes and has failed to incorporate a different approach in the Port Everglades' expansion. 

“The corps claims it’s a ‘learning agency,’ but all plans so far show that the corps is not intending to improve its practices in Port Everglades after destroying over 200 acres of reef in Miami, and with this letter we show our intent to push for better protection for Fort Lauderdale’s reefs,” said the executive director of Waterkeeper, Rachel Silverstein.

The letter goes on to cite reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Narional Marine Fisheries Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which all confirmed reports that severe coral death and damage to the reef habitat far exceed what had been permitted for during the Port of Miami dredge. The letter also says acres of coral reef that stretched as far as 3,000 feet from the channel were destroyed. That's almost ten times the anticipated amount of impact, according to Waterkeeper.

For its part, Waterkeeper has sent the corps and county officials several letters in the past, warning them that the same mistakes made with the Port of Miami project are going to happen again in Port Everglades.

“It’s outrageous that the Army Corps would stubbornly refuse to learn from its recent mistakes. Florida’s coral reefs are a national treasure that deserve to be protected,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Rather than diving headlong into the Port Everglades project, the Army Corps needs to step back, learn the lessons of the fiasco at the Port of Miami, and do right by our coral reefs.”

The Port Everglades dredging project is based on what the group calls "the same now-disproven assumptions as the Miami project," and the group is asking the Army Corps to reinitiate Endangered Species Act consultation with the Fisheries Service and discuss the effects of the Port Everglades expansion on protected corals in the area.

The estimated cost of the port expansion is $374 million, paid via port user fees, federal appropriations, and state grants but not local taxes.

You can read the entire letter below:


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