Legal settlement a win for Miami and our bay

THREATENED: Staghorn coral is being damaged by the dredging of Biscayne Bay, a lawsuit alleged.
THREATENED: Staghorn coral is being damaged by the dredging of Biscayne Bay, a lawsuit alleged.

A recent settlement between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and concerned local citizens and conservationists is a real win for our reefs and our local economy. But the battle to protect reefs and the bay continues.

On Oct. 23, the Army Corps acceded to the two principal demands of local environmental groups. First, the Corps agreed to pay more than $400,000 to rescue hundreds of threatened staghorn corals from near the PortMiami dredging project. Second, the Corps committed that it would require its contractor to implement certain best management practices to limit the environmental impact of the dredging project.

Miami is unique in its spectacular offshore coral reefs that attract millions of tourists annually. These visitors dive, snorkel, fish, swim and boat, and their spending makes up a substantial portion of our local “clean water” economy. Many Miamians learned to swim, fish and dive on these reefs. They hope that their children and grandchildren might one day do the same. Our reefs also create a natural barrier that protects us from coastal erosion and storm surge.

By deepening and widening the port channel, the dredging project aims to accommodate next-generation, super-sized cargo ships. We do not object to the project. However, we do take issue with the harm that the reefs have been subject to since the project’s inception. We believe that the Corps has repeatedly violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA), as well as the permit it received from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).

We’re disturbed that, according to the permit negotiated between the Army Corps and FDEP, local residents will be required to pay for any unanticipated environmental damage the Corps creates. That’s right: Miami-Dade County, not the Army Corps of Engineers, is liable for the cost of mitigating harm caused by the dredging. As we warned before construction even began, FDEP’s permit is not sufficient to protect the environment from excessive damage. Indeed, significant effects are already occurring.

Satellite and aerial photographs since the start of dredging have revealed enormous, dredge-related plumes of suspended milky sediment, which fall atop living coral and smother it. This summer, scientific divers from FDEP, Miami-Dade County and local groups confirmed that hundreds of corals had been covered in project-related sediment and were being stressed and killed.

In July, we took preliminary legal action. We argued that the Corps and its contractor had flagrantly violated its permit and ignored the ESA’s proscriptions. The Corps’ actions continued unabated.

In response to our evidence, the federal enforcement agency in charge, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), asked the Corps to begin monitoring the threatened coral. After seeing the condition of the coral in the first survey, NOAA issued emergency recommendations to relocate the it immediately. Instead of agreeing, the Corps told NOAA that it would leave the coral in place. They even asked permission to expand the number of threatened coral they were allowed to harm and/or kill.

Left with little choice, we sued the Corps in federal court in September and filed a request for emergency injunction.

Just days before our emergency injunction hearing, the Corps struck a deal with NOAA to pay more than $400,000 to move the threatened coral out of the dredging area and into a protected nursery. Then, after an eight-hour hearing in federal court, the Corps also agreed to implement best management practices throughout the life of the dredging project.

This settlement is a win for the environment and for local taxpayers, who are still on the hook for the Army Corps of Engineers’ mess. Our reefs and bay are ecological and aesthetic jewels, critical to our clean water economy and local culture. It’s a shame, and shameful, that we had to sue the federal government to get it to follow federal law.

Soon, the dredging will move into the bay. The parties involved, Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, Tropical Audubon Society, Miami-Dade Reef Guard Association and Captain Dan Kipnis, will be watching closely to make sure that the Corps and its contractors act responsibly to protect our reefs, bay and bottom line.

Rachel Silverstein is executive director and waterkeeper of the organization Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper.