Environmentalists asked a federal judge to shut down dredge work on Government Cut Wednesday, claiming the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had failed to protect fragile corals and their habitat on the bay bottom.
The lawsuit comes amid escalating criticism of the PortMiami project. Last month, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard warned the Corps that the state would pull its permit on the project if it didn't do a better job of controlling sediment that divers found smothering coral in the channel.
The Corps, which is overseeing work by Great Lakes Dredge & Dock, declined to comment on the lawsuit. But spokeswoman Susan Jackson pointed out that the channel was dug nearly a century ago as a transportation hub.
“Some environmental impact is unavoidable, but there has to be balance if we're to grow as a nation and remain vital in the global marketplace,” she said in an email. “This is a complex challenge, economically and environmentally.”
Since the Corps obtained permission in 2012 to deepen the channel to make way for bigger ships from the expanded Panama Canal, environmentalists have complained that the agency has not done enough to protect the coral that has grown in the channel since it was last dredged about 40 years ago.
In their lawsuit, the Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper group, Tropical Audubon, Miami-Dade Reef Guard Association and Capt. Dan Kipnis argue the Corps failed to find all the protected staghorn coral in the channel in a pre-dredge 2011 study. In October 2013, the Corps discovered more than 200 additional colonies. But despite the discovery and warnings from the National Marine Fisheries Service, workers only moved 31 colonies without accounting for the additional coral before dredge work started, the lawsuit said.
In July, divers for the county and state discovered sediment floating from the dredge had created a moonscape. Sediment coated some coral and choked off sunlight. Fringes of dead coral surrounded some colonies while others were clearly stressed, the state warned the Corps.
With concerns mounting, Vinyard wrote to the Corps’ Col. Alan Dodd on Sept. 12 to remind him of the state’s repeated warning over the threat to protected coral and endangered seagrass, and asked him to enter a consent order to remedy the problems. Dodd responded that the Corps had not violated its permit and argued that the agency had anticipated some damage would occur. Dodd also said the Corps was looking into the reports and would take steps to address any problems.
DEP officials have not responded to repeated requests for comment on their threat to pull the Corps’ permit. But Jackson said Wednesday the two agencies are working together.
“The Corps of Engineers is committed to protecting the environment,” she said, and will adapt “project work based on what we have learned and continue to learn.”