About a mile offshore from the wharves of PortMiami, what appeared to be a floating factory equipped with a giant drill bit loomed on the horizon.
It was the Texas, a 305-foot dredge owned by Great Lakes Dredge & Dock — the company that is deepening the Miami harbor so it can handle the megaships that will begin transiting the expanded Panama Canal in early 2016.
A cluster of tugs, a scow and a spider barge — so named because of its overhanging arms that load dredged material — also were part of the operation. Near Fisher Island. a smaller clam bucket dredge worked in Government Cut.
If all goes according to plan, Great Lakes will complete its $205.8million contract to widen and deepen PortMiami’s shipping lanes from 44 to 50-52 feet by mid-2015 with about six months to spare before the canal expansion is finished.
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“The fact that we’ll be the only U.S. East Coast port all the way up to Virginia with 50 feet tells a pretty compelling story,” said Port Miami Director Juan Kuryla.
On a recent Friday, a group of visitors that included Kuryla and Mark Baker, director of South Florida Container Terminal, headed out in a light chop to check the progress of the port’s “deep dredge.”
“You see how quickly we got out here,” Kuryla said. “That will be an advantage too. From the port to deep water in the ocean is only two miles. There’s not 22 miles of river and fog.” That was a reference to Savannah, a river port that is one of the Miami port’s main Southeast coast competitors.
Soon after the group boarded the Texas, the ship echoed with the din of a rotating cutter-head biting into the limestone seabed. An underwater pump sucked up the loosened material and sent it through a large floating hose connected to a spider barge, which shot the slurry into a waiting scow.
After each scow is filled, a tug pulls it to a site about 21/2 miles from the Miami sea buoy and the excavated material is dumped, said Chris Pomfret, the project manager for Great Lakes.
The dredge is a 24-hour operation and about 140 people are currently working on the project.
“This is a city unto itself. The workers sleep here,” Kuryla said as he climbed a catwalk that offered a spectacular view of the Miami and Miami Beach skylines.
Kuryla said the dredge is essential to the port’s future growth. “It’s just so critical.”
But the dredge isn’t without controversy. About seven acres of coral reef are within the dredging area. In 2011, Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, a watchdog group, and Tropical Audubon sued over the Army Corps of Engineers’ plans to transplant only threatened species of coral from the dredge area.
Miami-Dade County and the Corps, which is overseeing the dredge, agreed to expand the mitigation area to 16.6 acres and move any coral colonies larger than 10 inches, as well as 1,300 corals in the 4- to 10-inch range and Acropora, which includes elkhorn and staghorn coral.
So far, Great Lakes says it has gathered more than 1,000 corals and is creating 10 acres of artificial reef south of the navigation channel.
Port officials said after Great Lakes removed the larger hard corals, members of the public who hold permits to move the protected species were allowed to come in.
Permit holders complained they had an extremely short window to harvest the coral. But Pomfret said in the area where coral relocation was required, the company delayed two weeks to allow the permit holders access. “The two-week delay cost the company $100,000 to $200,000,” he said.
Last month the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said the dredge project was stirring up too much sediment — harming and even beginning to kill fragile coral and sponges — and was in violation of its state permit. Environmentalists are threatening to file suit.
In its response, the Corps said its had complied with three of four permit provisions. Since the DEP complaint, the Corps said it has had “several productive discussions” with the agency and was committed to protecting the environment.
Susan Jackson, a Corps spokeswoman, said data is being collected and the coral is being monitored. If needed, further coral mitigation is a possibility, she said.