Bay activists warn Corps to clean up dredge

07/17/2014 7:52 PM

07/17/2014 8:20 PM

An environmental group is demanding the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers clean up the $205 million dredging of Government Cut or head back to court.

In a formal notice announcing plans to sue, Biscayne Bay Waterkeepers accuses the Corps and its dredging contractor of violating state permits by failing to properly monitor work and by allowing a large plume of sediment to spread, risking damage to fragile coral and endangered seagrass.

“What we’re really asking for with our letter is for the corps to play by the rules and regulations,’’ said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of the Waterkeepers. By law, the group must give the Corps 60 days to fix the problems before it can file sue.

The latest PortMiami dredging project began this summer. Over the next several years, dredges will scoop up about six million cubic yards from the main shipping channel to make way for a new class of monster cargo ships expected to arrive via the massive expansion of the Panama Canal in 2015.

The Corps declined to respond to specific questions about the work or how it monitors the sediment. In a statement released late Thursday, it said it was using “some of the highest levels of environmental monitoring and protection measures that we have ever implemented. And, we are continuously working closely with other federal, state and local agencies to ensure the Miami Harbor project impacts are temporary in nature and minimized to the maximum extent possible.”

The work is being done under a state-issued permit that includes a complicated plan for both mitigating and checking for damage. The chief concern was that the work would fill the channel with sediment, blocking sunlight and killing nearby coral and endangered Johnson seagrass. After work started last month, the Corps began conducting weekly surveys of coral and levels of sediment. But environmentalists say almost immediately sediment spread and equipment installed to monitor the sediment failed.

“I have friends who run dive operations ... and they’ve had to abort trips because they didn’t have water quality to dive safely. And this is 3.5 miles south of the cut,” said Capt. Dan Kipnis, a fishing guide who is one of the potential plaintiffs.

It’s not the first time Corps’ oversight has been criticized. Last month, researchers given 12 days to rescue acres of coral that they said could hold clues to climate change complained that the agency cut their work short.

The dredge will consume about seven acres of reef, including five undisturbed acres at the mouth of the channel. The Corps had originally planned on transplanting only threatened species, including fragile staghorn. But after two environmental groups sued in 2011, Miami-Dade County and the Corps agreed to expand the mitigation area to 16.6 acres and move any coral colonies bigger than about 10 inches, along with another 1,300 between about four and 10 inches.

“We definitely hope that corrective [action] is taken quickly, mainly because there is so much damage going on,” Silverstein said.

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