Miami-Dade County

Biscayne Bay coral at risk from sloppy dredge work

Biscayne Bay Waterkeepers say a diver discovered this colony of staghorn coral transplanted from Government Cut to an artificial reef last year covered with sediment and dying last week.
Biscayne Bay Waterkeepers say a diver discovered this colony of staghorn coral transplanted from Government Cut to an artificial reef last year covered with sediment and dying last week.

Despite promises to a federal judge in October to clean up dredging at Government Cut, federal managers of a $205 million channel-deepening project continue to stir up sediment and risk damaging fragile marine life.

Federal environmental regulators refused to extend a permit in December after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported a laundry list of problems in transporting the sediment to a dump site five miles offshore. The problems, 49 in all, mostly involved excessive leaking from scows, the large flat-bottomed barges used to carry sediment to the site.

The Environmental Protection Agency “is concerned about these violations in consideration of the valuable live bottom resources... including federally listed species protected under the Endangered Species Act,” Water Protection Division director James Giattina wrote in denying a two-year permit. Giattina extended the permit just six months and asked the Corps to correct the work.

Environmentalists have repeatedly complained the Corps is not doing enough to keep sediment from the massive dredging from fanning out over the bay and killing protected coral and meadows of seagrass. The work, scheduled to end in July, will scoop up about six million cubic yards of bay bottom to make way for larger ships coming through an expanded Panama Canal.

“They’ve been dredging for over a year and we’ve been reporting damage for months now,” said Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper executive director Rachel Silverstein.

On two separate dives last week, Waterkeeper divers found and photographed sickly staghorn coral that had been transplanted from the channel to a nearby artificial reef a year ago for protection. The photos show tagged colonies now coated with sediment and dead or dying.

Corps officials said they are investigating the problems and are working closely with the EPA to correct them. Corps spokeswoman Susan Jackson wrote in an email this week that none of the leaks or dumping had damaged sensitive marine life. At six months, surveys showed the coral was healthy, she said. Workers recently completed a one-year inspection, she said, but have not yet reported their findings. State inspectors, who found extensive damage in July, are scheduled to return next week, said Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller.

Once the project is completed, Jackson said the Corps will look at how the work affected marine life and take steps to lessen any damage.

“We’re a learning organization — we take the lessons learned and apply them not only to projects under execution, but to our future planning for projects,” she wrote.

In October, the Waterkeeper group along with Reef Guard and Tropical Audubon asked a judge to shut down work after state inspectors found the dredge had created a moonscape on the bay bottom, churning up sediment and triggering a “profound effect” on the sea floor. Divers found some areas buried in six inches of sand and coral suffocating as sediment piled up. Traps intended to measure sediment, which can block sunlight and kill sea life, were not working. Boulders dropped to create an artificial reef also crushed existing coral and sponges.

After a nine-hour stand-off in court, the environmentalists, who have also sued the Corps for violating the Endangered Species Act, agreed to drop the request when Department of Justice attorneys vowed to practice “adaptive management” strategies to protect marine life.

The dredge will consume about seven acres of reef, including five undisturbed acres at the mouth of the channel. To offset the damage, the Corps initially agreed to move threatened coral, which amounted to about 36 colonies, but agreed to expand rescue efforts after environmental groups sued in 2014 after much more protected coral was discovered. The location of the coral and how much should be moved has fueled much of the ongoing debate.

Environmentalists want the Corps to do a better job of determining the extent of sediment damage so they can take better steps to protect coral and other marine life. They worry that when the Corps dredges Port Everglades where about 30,000 colonies are scheduled to be planted from nurseries to compensate for damage to the Fort Lauderdale port, no measures will be taken to protect them.

“If we don’t know how far sediment impact goes, we don’t know where it’s safe to put coral,” Silverstein said. “In Miami, we found that even where they thought it was safe, they’re still getting sediment damage.”