To Protect Port Everglades’ Coral Reefs, Environmentalists Threaten to Sue Army Corps

Reefs are underwater rainforests that are mostly inhabited by corals. These fascinating little creatures can hunt, poop, and have sex. Since the 1970s, corals on the Florida Reef Tract have declined more than 80 percent, and six South Florida coral species are listed as threatened on the Endangered Species list.

Though some of the coral loss can be linked to natural occurrences like warming seas, ocean acidification, and disease, environmentalists argue that the decline is preventable and government agencies aren’t doing enough to protect the creatures.

Last year, when the Army Corps of Engineers widened the PortMiami channel (which bisects the coral reef) to allow bigger cargo ships to pass through, it promised protective measures for the coral. Yet 250 acres of it  — including the endangered staghorn coral — were smothered.

Now the Army Corps has received the green light to similarly dredge Port Everglades as early as 2017. But environmentalists are teaming up to prevent Broward County’s coral reef, fewer than 30 miles north of Miami’s, from suffering a similar fate. Yesterday activist groups including Miami Waterkeeper, the Center for Biological Diversity, Florida Wildlife Federation, and Earthjustice sent the Army Corps a 19-page letter threatening to sue them for violating the federal Endangered Species Act. If the Corps doesn’t respond in 60 days, the groups can move the litigation forward.

“A large number of our claims are based on what happened in PortMiami and the many deficiencies revealed in that project," says Rachel Silverstein, executive director of the nonprofit Miami Waterkeeper. "In Port Everglades, we’re trying to address those problems earlier. The Florida reef is in crisis right now and can’t sustain any more stress.”

The Army Corps of Engineers issued a statement Tuesday claiming it is not violating the Endangered Species Act. The Corps points out it has worked with the National Marine Fisheries to transplant threatened PortMiami corals to a nursery. The project includes an “expressly authorized project-related ‘incidental take’ of threatened staghorn coral,” according to the statement. (This means the corps expected — and other parts of the government approved — that some endangered corals would be killed in the project.) 

The statement adds: “The Corps is committed to protecting the marine resources of South Florida and has worked with our federal partner agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, at every stage of the Miami Harbor project to comply with the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.”
In 2013, when the Army Corps of Engineers began widening the PortMiami channel, environmentalists said the machines would whip up sediment and bury the corals alive. The Corps insisted its measures, including transplant, were sufficient, but in 2014, divers realized machines were spewing sediment farther than predicted. It was too late.

Environmentalists say the Corps severely underestimated the risk. It argues the 150-meter impact area on either side of the Miami dredging site should be increased. They also point out that there were more corals in the region than a 2010 study showed and ask that more studies be conducted. For months, Silverstein and other environmentalists have been sending letters asking that the Corps incorporates some of the failures of PortMiami to ensure that they don’t happen in Port Everglades. But so far their entreaties have been unsuccessful. 

“The Army Corps makes a lot of promises for the future, but so far their failures to correct these really fundamental planning documents to be more accurate indicates that they have no real intention of learning from what happened in PortMiami,” Silverstein says. “There are not too many resources available, but a lot of legal avenues.”

Last October, activists sued the Army Corps in the PortMiami project, demanding it install new corals to replace those destroyed — a move that could cost as much as $1 million per acre. Silverstein says the lawsuit is ongoing.

In the letter sent to the Corps on Tuesday, environmentalists request what they call common-sense protections.

“There are provisions for citizens to step into the role of an enforcement agency, " says Brettny Hardy, an attorney with Earthjustice. "That’s basically what we’re prepared to do.”

The main claim is that the Corps did not consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) when new information became available on PortMiami. 

“We asked the National Marine Fisheries to use their authority to force the Corps to redo their consultation now that new information is available,” Hardy says. “Under the Endangered Species Act, the National Fisheries Services has a responsibility to manage and protect these threatened species.”

An NMFS spokesperson declined to comment on the letter.

Authorization for the Port Everglades funding is currently being considered in Congress. It is expected to cost $374 million and to bring 6200 jobs as well as a total economic impact of $30 million per year.

Environmentalists stress that corals bring South Florida more than $4 billion per year in tourism and provide protection from hurricanes and flooding.
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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