By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
With Floridians focused on surviving the global COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to significantly expand an underwater dump site off the coast of Fort Lauderdale.
The site would be used to dump material dredged during the upcoming $437-million Port Everglades harbor deepening project and unspecified “future proposed projects.” Environmentalists are wary, fearing devastation to sensitive offshore corals like what happened during the PortMiami deepening project five years ago.
EPA posted a public notice of the dump project, which includes a 30-day period for public comment, on March 13. No comments were received as of Wednesday. The comment period expires Monday.
If approved, the expansion would more than double the size of the existing offshore disposal area from 1.43 square nautical miles to 3.21 square nautical miles and have “an estimated capacity of approximately 6.7 million yards.” A nautical mile is equal to 1.1508 land miles. More familiarly, the proposed undersea disposal area would be more than 4 miles square.
Here’s how the EPA summarized its proposal:
“The purpose for the site modification is to enlarge the site to serve the long-term need for a location to dispose of suitable material dredged from the Port Everglades Harbor and for the disposal of suitable dredged material for persons who receive a MPRSA [Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act] permit for such disposal. The modified site will be subject to monitoring and management to ensure continued protection of the marine environment.”
The dredging at Port Everglades is a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project, and “would be most affected by the change,” the EPA said.
With the deadline for comment looming, Friends of the Earth and 78 other environmental groups from across the nation have sent a letter asking the Corps to extend the comment period for the offshore dump and other proposed projects until 60 days after the national emergency is lifted.
Saying the groups are “alarmed” by the Corps behavior to proceed with “non-essential” matters, the letter by Friends of the Earth senior oceans campaigner Hallie Templeton contends, “The public’s ability to monitor open rulemakings and develop useful comments for agency decision-makers is being hindered, if not blocked outright, during this public health crisis… Holding open all active public comment periods until stakeholders can resume normal operations without risk of exposure to COVID-19 will ensure that the public is truly able to meaningfully participate in the administrative process consistent with the letter and spirt of the APA [Administrative Procedure Act].”
One of the groups signing onto the letter to the Corps was non-profit Miami Waterkeeper. Executive Director Rachel Silverstein said she had not yet read new documents in the EPA’s proposal, saying, “We’re still waiting on them to redo their environmental impact statement based on the disaster that occurred in Miami.”
Dredging damaged Miami reefs
Silverstein was referring to the results of a research study released last May that found “significant damage to Miami’s coral reefs resulting from the dredging” at PortMiami from 2013 to 2015. The study, led by biologist Dr. Ross Cunning of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, found that “large amounts of dredging sediment buried 50-90 percent of nearby reefs, resulting in widespread coral death.” The study estimated that more than 500,000 corals were killed within a half-kilometer of the dredged channel and that impacts “may have spread across 25 km of Florida’s reef tract.”
Waterkeeper, which doesn’t want a repeat at Port Everglades, sued and in 2017 the Corps agreed to delay the dredging project pending further study.
Two months ago, Congress approved $29 million to move the Coast Guard station near the entrance to Port Everglades that is blocking part of the harbor deepening. The station will be moved 250 feet east to allow that large cargo ships can safely glide south on the Intracoastal Waterway past docked cruise ships to the turning notch offloading area. The contract for that “reconfiguration” is scheduled to be awarded in October.
The Port Everglades harbor dredge project, first proposed 24 years ago, was approved by the Corps in 2015. The plan is to deepen the harbor from 45 to 50 feet to accommodate new, bigger ships that sail through the expanded Panama Canal.
Rock and sediment dredged from the channel would be deposited at the offshore dump site three miles out and north of the port entrance. Among the environmental concerns is that sand and limestone silt will spill from barges used to transport dredged material to the dump site, damaging delicate corals – precisely what happened in Miami.
According to the EPA’s proposal, an interim dump site located 1.6 nautical miles from shore was used to dispose of material dredged from the port, but was discontinued in the 1980s due to potential impacts on nearby reefs. The existing dump site, where dumping is allowed by permit only, was designated in 2005.
‘Not expected’ to hurt corals
The existing site, and the proposed expansion, are “beyond the edge of the continental shelf” where the average water depth is 678 feet, the proposal says. The location is “on a range that is not expected to allow sediments to travel to nearby shore-associated coral reef habitat,” the proposal says.
The EPA proposal says the existing dump site has had little impact on either Fort Lauderdale’s beaches or recreational fishing boats, and the expansion won’t either.
“No significant impacts to beaches or amenity areas associated with the existing [site]…have been detected,” the proposal says. “The likelihood of direct interference” to recreational fishing in the area “is low, provided there is close communication and coordination among users of the ocean resources.”
Still, the proposal notes that previous disposal of dredged material at the site “has resulted in temporary increases in suspended sentiment concentrations during disposal operations, burial of benthic [bottom-dwelling] organisms within the site, and slight changes in the abundance and composition of benthic assemblages [biological communities].”
Those changes from the dumping “are expected to be temporary and return to baseline over time.”