Environmentalists: Don't Trust Army Corps on Port Everglades Dredging

After a decades-long approval process, a plan to deepen and widen Port Everglades was greenlit by the Army Corps of Engineers on Friday afternoon. Because the bigger port will accommodate bigger ships, local government officials are praising the expansion as an economic win, but environmental groups aren't so enthusiastic. They are more concerned about the plan's impact on coral reefs, seagrass, and mangroves — especially after it was discovered earlier this year that the similar PortMiami project unexpectedly destroyed large numbers of coral.

“This is the only barrier reef in the United States, and we’re dredging two ports 30 miles apart from each other without taking the proper precautions to make sure the reefs are safe,” Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper, tells New Times.

Silverstein took over the nonprofit, which advocates for the watershed and marine wildlife, in June 2014. She remembers the PortMiami widening and deepening project was brought up as an issue her second day on the job. In the past year, she and her team have maneuvered to keep the project from moving forward until more studies are conducted on marine life — from researching the wildlife to conducting studies and sending concerned letters.

Officials tout the Port Everglades widening and deepening project because it will bring the county thousands of jobs (4,700 in construction and an additional 1,500 from the added cargo capacity) and $30 million in economic impact each year. Port Everglades is the third busiest cruise port and 11th busiest port for freight in the country. It is the leading port in Florida. The recently approved plans will deepen the main canals another eight feet (along with parts of the Intracoastal Waterway) to fit new models of supersized cargo ships from Europe and Asia. It is estimated to cost $374 million, paid through port user fees, federal appropriations, and state grants (not local taxes).

But earlier this year as PortMiami was dredged and expanded, government divers discovered that large numbers of coral were destroyed and smothered in sediment. The Army Corps of Engineers (the same group launching the Port Everglades plans) assured other government officials and environmental groups (like Miami Waterkeeper) that replanting the coral and wildlife would protect them from the underwater construction. But it was found that the Army Corps underestimated the amount of coral (particularly the endangered staghorn coral) in the area. As a result, those endangered species of coral were never moved from the impact area and replanted.

Now Silverstein’s team and other environmental groups fear that what happened at the Miami port project will repeat itself at Port Everglades. In multiple letters sent to the Army Corps and county officials, her team pointed out that more studies need to be conducted after the noted failure at the PortMiami project. “We’re writing letters reminding them they just had a disaster in Miami and they’re going to use the same methodology,” Silverstein says. “They didn’t change their plan at all.”

In letters and environmental studies, Silverstein’s team warns that the dredging impact area will exceed the estimated 150-meter area, that the Army Corps study underestimates the amount of coral and seagrass at risk (like in the PortMiami Project), and that the disposal plan for leaking dredging material is inadequate. However, their most damning point is that the Army Corps environmental impact studies should be deemed unreliable since failures of their PortMiami project studies led to the destruction of large numbers of endangered coral.

But the Army Corps maintains that it understands that coral reefs surrounding South Florida and the Caribbean are shrinking at record rates. In the approved Port Everglades project, the Army Crops plans to plant 103,000 nursery-raised corals in 18-acres of reef area. They also plan to relocate 11,500 existing corals and to restore sea grass and mangroves in West Lake Park. But, Silverstein points out, these plans have not been updated after the smothered coral was found in Biscayne Bay.

Silverstein and other environmental groups remain unconvinced. Silverstein’s group is leading a lawsuit against the Army Corps for violating the National Environmental Policy Act for the damage it caused to marine life in the Port Miami Project. Now that the Chief of Engineers report was signed, Silverstein is running out of options to contest the Port Everglades project but remains optimistic. The public can still bring forward a legal challenge.

“We definitely feel like the lessons weren’t learned, and we had to lose a whole reef in Miami. We want people to do better next time, but there has been no effort to improve their plans,” Silverstein says. “But I don’t think this is the end of the line in the process.”
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Jess Swanson is a staff writer at New Times. Born and raised in Miami, she graduated from the University of Miami’s School of Communication and wrote briefly for the student newspaper until realizing her true calling: pissing off fraternity brothers by reporting about their parties on her crime blog. Especially gifted in jumping rope and solving Rubik’s cubes, she also holds the title for longest stint as an unpaid intern in New Times history. She left the Magic City for New York to earn her master’s degree from Columbia University School of Journalism, where she spent a year profiling circumcised men who were trying to regrow their foreskins for a story that ultimately won the John Horgan Award for Critical Science Journalism. Terrified by pizza rats and arctic temperatures, she quickly returned to her natural habitat.
Contact: Jess Swanson