Gov. Rick Scott and other backers of the Deep Dredge at PortMiami celebrated the project’s completion Friday even as federal officials continue to argue over environmental damage done by the $205 million project.
At a ribbon cutting attended by several hundred port workers and officials, Scott repeatedly touted the 33,000 jobs he said the three-year-long expansion would produce.
“The most important thing we can be doing is creating jobs,” said Scott, who chipped in $77 million from the state to kickstart the long-delayed project.
Deepening the port channel by about six feet to 52-feet deep will allow massive ships sailing through an expanded Panama Canal to bring cargo to Miami and completes a $1 billion makeover that included a controversial new tunnel. The expansion makes PortMiami the only port south of Virginia large enough to accommodate the giant ships and, if projections of booming business prove accurate, could pump about $7 billion into the region, Scott said.
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“That $77 million investment will have a return on investment of $7 million. That’s a pretty good ROI for you business people out there,” said Lt. Gov. Carlos López-Cantera, a former state representative from Miami. “This is a tremendous thing.”
But critics contend the project’s boosters have overinflated the potential surge in shipping and underestimated the environmental costs, topped by the destruction of coral in Government Cut, the loss of several acre of reefs off Miami Beach and additional damage to reefs and seagrass from silt and sediment.
Environmentalists sued to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which managed the project, to improve coral and seagrass protection. More than five million cubic yards of mud, rock and sand was barged to an offshore dump site, churning up sediment that could cloud water and damage marine life. And federal environmental agencies also required the Corps to take steps to monitor the sediment — and stop work to give water time clear.
But as work neared completion, state and federal regulators found the Corps and its contractor, Great Lakes Dredge & Dock, caused far more damage than expected. A year ago, state divers found sediment had left behind a moonscape, with coral buried and dying. Leaky barges repeatedly wracked up violations. In August, the National Marine Fisheries Service warned the Corps that damage covered four times the area allowed in its permit.
The Fisheries Service has repeatedly asked the Corps to provide a more accurate tally of how much marine life was damaged and what steps are needed to help repair it. In a letter to the Corps’ Jacksonville commander earlier this month, the Fisheries Service said the Corps “seems to selectively choose certain results to downplay the permanent effects” of the dredge.
“They’re claiming, ‘We don’t know what this area looked like before the dredging, so we don’t know what’s natural and what’s dredging,’” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper, one of the groups that has fought for better monitoring. “I strongly disagree with that and so does [the Fisheries Service]. There’s many ways to tell whether it’s dredging.”
When asked Friday, Scott — who has made steep cuts to the Department of Environment Protection and come under criticism for spending too little to protect Florida wilderness — said the state would work with the Corps to make sure damage is addressed.
“They’re going to make sure that everything’s done properly and make sure that we continue to fix anything that we find,’’ he said. “One thing that’s great about this state is the people either locally or at the state level, they want to fix problems. And we have a very good relationship with the Corps of Engineers.”
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the county, which will ultimately foot the bill for any work to repair the reef, will continue to monitor the area for signs of damage for five years.
“We’re in the middle of two federal agencies,” he said. “By the same token, I’m glad this project came to fruition. It’s important for our economy.”