Miami-Dade County

Environmentalists drop emergency bid to stop Government Cut dredge

The dredger Terrapin Island hovers at the entrance of Government Cut vacuuming the ocean floor to deepen the channel leading to PortMiami in November.
The dredger Terrapin Island hovers at the entrance of Government Cut vacuuming the ocean floor to deepen the channel leading to PortMiami in November. EL NUEVO HERALD

Environmentalists dropped an emergency bid to shut down the dredge of Government Cut on Thursday after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers vowed in court to take steps to ensure the project won’t stir up more sediment and damage fragile coral.

After a nine-hour standoff, attorneys struck what seemed like an empty deal as Corps attorney Brooks Moore reread part of the agency’s contract with Great Lakes Dredge & Dock, confirming it would use “adaptive management measures.”

Environmentalists sued last month after evidence mounted that the dredge was creating sediment and harming coral. In June and July, Miami-Dade County and state biologists found a moonscape, with coral around the channel dead or dying as sediment piled up.

The findings, along with results of monitoring done by the Corps, prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service to order the Corps to take emergency steps to relocate endangered staghorn coral last month.

Meanwhile, a group of environmentalists, including the Miami-Dade Reef Guard Association, the Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper group and fishing captain Dan Kipnis sued this month after warning the Corps more than two months ago to clean up its work.

The dredge is intended to deepen the channel leading to PortMiami to more than 50 feet to make way for larger ships sailing from the expanded Panama Canal.

Attorneys for Reef Guard, who spent much of the day detailing lapses in the work, said that without the promise, Great Lakes might not take steps to protect the coral. They wanted federal attorneys to order Great Lakes to limit the sediment by, among other things, not pumping excess water from the dredged bay bottom before hauling it out to sea to dump.

But federal attorneys argued that such a move could cost millions of dollars and that “adaptive management measures,” a term used by the Corps in most civil works projects, gives them flexibility while ensuring that the work follows federal laws on endangered species.

“We can’t amend a contract every time there’s a complaint,” said Department of Justice attorney Mark Brown. “Adaptive management means it’s built into the contract.”

Clearly frustrated by the vague term, U.S. Magistrate Judge John O’Sullivan told Brown he was “talking gobbledygook.”

“I don’t understand the big deal over writing a letter,” O’Sullivan said. “How much does it cost? A hundred dollars? It’s hard for me to comprehend.”

After spending much of the day detailing the government red tape that prevented the Corps from responding more quickly, O’Sullivan urged the Corps to budge.

“You’ve got 40 people here watching you say you won’t abide by your contract,” he told Corps attorneys before suggesting attorneys for the environmentalists “write down what you want them to say and then see if they’ll say it.”

After two breaks and much discussion, the two sides settled the emergency request. Reef Guard’s complaint that the Corps violated the Endangered Species Act, however, remains in play, said attorney James Porter.

“We’ll need to decide what to do going forward,” Porter said. “A lot of that will have to do with how the Corps conducts itself.”