Environment

After Miami coral-killing, activists warn about Port Everglades work

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to deepen Port Everglades by about six to 13 feet and widen parts by 300 feet. The expansion, which follows last year’s dredging of PortMiami, is part of an effort to prepare aging ports along the East Coast to bigger ships sailing through the Panama Canal.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to deepen Port Everglades by about six to 13 feet and widen parts by 300 feet. The expansion, which follows last year’s dredging of PortMiami, is part of an effort to prepare aging ports along the East Coast to bigger ships sailing through the Panama Canal. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

The dredging of PortMiami that killed more coral than originally estimated should serve as a warning that the U.S. Corps of Engineers needs to take a closer look at fragile reefs before it deepens Port Everglades, conservationists said Tuesday.

After repeatedly complaining that the Corps had done too little to assess potential damage, the groups — including the Center for Biological Diversity, Miami Waterkeeper, Earthjustice, the Florida Wildlife Federation and Sea Experience — said they would sue in 60 days if no changes are made. Legislation to pay for the work has already been approved by the U.S. Senate and is pending in the House.

“It does not include a single change to account for all the damage that occurred at PortMiami, so there are no lessons learned,” Miami Waterkeeper executive director Rachel Silverstein said.

But Corps officials argue that the dredge will affect just a tiny fraction of the 600-square-mile reef off the coast and “in the worst case scenario in no way threaten the overall viability of the reef tract.”

The $205 million “Deep Dredge” at Miami’s bustling port, to make way for bigger ships sailing through the expanded Panama Canal, drew criticisms from environmentalists after plumes of sediment settled over coral in the channel. The Corps originally estimated that just 31 endangered staghorn coral would be damaged, and agreed to move them. But before work started, divers hired to retrieve the coral found hundreds more.

After the dredge, federal wildlife managers with the National Marine Fisheries Service also found that sediment had drifted far beyond what was originally permitted — just 500 feet on either side of the channel — to create a moonscape covering just under a half mile on either side.

Environmentalists sued in October 2014, arguing that the Corps was not doing enough to protect the coral that had grown in the channel from the last time it was dredged 40 years ago or to protect the reef. That suit is still pending.

But Corps officials have said environmental impacts were unavoidable to deepen the century-old port and blamed the coral death on an outbreak of white plague disease. Susan Jackson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the agency complied with its permits and constructed an artificial reef to mitigate damage. The Corps plans to survey the area this summer to get a better read on effects from the dredge, she said.

The groups now fear that the same mistakes will be made in Fort Lauderdale, where the Corps plans to widen the channel by 300 feet in places and deepen it from 42 feet to as much as 55 feet.

During a public-comment period on the project, Miami Waterkeeper and other groups warned that the same survey methods were used and could result in inaccurate results. In September, they again complained that rare coral could be overlooked and asked for another review under the Environmental Species Act that protects threatened coral. In February, they asked Corps chiefs — conducting a final review before sending the project on to Congress — to reconsider costs that failed to address the additional monitoring needed.

Florida’s reef tract is the only one found in shallow water on the U.S. coast, drawing tourists from around the world and generating about $2 billion in sales in Broward County alone. Climate change scientists say reefs also play an increasingly important role in protecting the coast from storms under sea rise projections. But over-fishing, damage from anchors and pollution have left many struggling. Seven Caribbean species, including six found near the port, are now considered threatened, the Center for Biological Conservancy said.

While the Corps also concluded that the damage from sediment at Port Everglades would likely be similar to what occurred at PortMiami, they proposed mitigating it by building a 12.6-acre artificial reef and relocating 100,000 corals. They also plan to work with Broward County to plant new seagrass and mangroves south of the port.

But conservationists say that if the same faulty survey methods are used, the Corps has likely underestimated just how far sediment could drift.

“The Army Corps’ response is always that we learn lessons and we’ll do better next time. But this is really the first time they’ve put pen to paper on what they’re going to do and it doesn’t contain a single change after what happened at PortMiami,” Silverstein said. “So it’s difficult to believe their comment about lessons learned.”

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