The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to pay for 10,000 threatened coral to be replanted to make up for damage caused when it dredged PortMiami and dug up more than 5 million cubic yards of seafloor.
The deal, announced Monday, will settle a lawsuit brought by environmentalists who questioned the Corps’ dredging tactics and accused the agency of underestimating the damage caused by the $205 million project. An independent study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists later found dredge work killed coral in an area about 14 times larger than allowed under a permit.
“They didn’t stop dredging even after it became clear that this damage was occurring,” Captain Dan Kipnis, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement. Miami Waterkeeper, Miami-Dade Reef Guard Association and the Tropical Audubon Society also were plaintiffs.
“We are pleased to have achieved some restoration for these dredge-damaged reefs, but we really need a fundamental change in the process to protect our reefs for the future,” Kipnis added.
The 2015 dredge was part of a $1 billion makeover at the port that allowed larger super ships sailing through the widened Panama Canal. Last month, however, the Corps announced that it was considering more dredging after harbor pilots complained that the super ships were having trouble navigating the mouth of the channel. There are also new mega ships, twice as large as those originally intended for the widened channel, that Port officials would like to bring to Miami.
The coral had been a matter of contention almost from the beginning of the project, expected to consume about seven acres of Florida’s disappearing reef tract. The Corps had planned on transplanting threatened species to a mitigation area. But after two environmental groups sued in 2011, Miami-Dade County and the Corps agreed to enlarge the mitigation area and move more coral.
But as work got underway, divers began to find more and more coral smothered in mud.
NOAA and Corps officials also repeatedly clashed after the fisheries service warned the Corps that damage appeared to be more widespread and in danger of violating a permit issued by the agency. The Corps also failed to provide updated surveys, prompting NOAA to accuse the Corps of “selectively [choosing] certain results to downplay the permanent effects” of the dredge.
The settlement will pay University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science biologist Diego Lirman to replant the threatened staghorn coral over the next three years. The Corps also agreed to pay $50,000 to Miami-Dade County for a buoy ball program that helps protects reefs.
“The settlement is bittersweet,” Tropical Audubon President Jose Barros said in a statement. “We are pleased that these corals will be restored, but this damage never should have happened.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the listing status of staghorn coral.