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Surfers, Environmentalists Win; Judge Rips Boca Coastal Engineering Company

For years now, the Surfrider Foundation, the Snook Foundation, and the City of Lake Worth have been fighting the Town of Palm Beach over its dream of renourishing a section of beach known as Reach 8. In 2005, the town asked for a permit to fill in the eroding beach with sand taken from offshore. The town had already completed a similar project on a section of beach known as Reach 7, near Phipps Ocean Park.

There were lots of problems with the plan, environmentalists said. First, the sand that the town proposed bringing in was not the same size as the sand that naturally occurs on the beach. A recommended order issued last week by administrative law judge Robert Meade explains that sand used in the Reach 7 project was too fine and caused the water to be cloudy and turbid, making it incompatible for nearshore coral-studded reefs that are federally designated "Essential Fish Habitats." If incompatible sand were used again in the Reach 8 project, "gill cavities of the fish will fill with fine sediment and the fish will suffocate," the document states. 

On top of that, experts alleged that filling in 6.9 acres of hardbottom could destroy algae, sponges, and coral at the bottom of the food chain. Experts who testified both for and against the project agreed that juvenile sea turtles would probably die. Species like mole crabs and coquina clams might have trouble adjusting to the new sand, and the project might also ruin the local surf break and make the water too cloudy for snorkeling. "Swimming would probably cease," Judge Meade wrote, "as the turbid waters would discourage nearly all persons from entering them on the grounds of aesthetics and safety, not just from shark attacks, but also from collision with any unseen hardbottom."

Judge Meade sided with the environmentalists when he suggested that the Department of Environmental Protection deny the permit once and for all. The case now goes to DEP head Michael Sole, who should approve or deny the permit by June.

In Meade's ruling, he called out the Boca Raton company, Coastal Planning & Engineering (CPE), that developed the Palm Beach plan. CPE, he said, had relied on faulty modeling to try to support the town's application. He called one of CPE's modeling tests an "irredeemable failure." Their reliance on a system called GENESIS was "an embarrassment," he said, and the only reason he could see for their trying to hold it up as solid was that "Palm Beach wanted to commence construction within five months." He added that "the main effect of GENESIS in this case is to cast doubt on CPE's other assurances concerning the performance of this project." Other municipalities may want to take note: According to its website, CPE is handling approximately 30 projects in Florida (including Broward County) and others from Massachusetts to Texas.

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Deirdra Funcheon

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