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Beyond the Headlines - Port Everglades Dredging

Responses to statements in the article:
Environmentalists: Don't Trust Army Corps on Port Everglades Dredging
The Broward Palm Beach New Times, by Jess Swanson, June 29, 2015  

STATEMENT: After a decades-long approval process, a plan to deepen and widen Port Everglades was greenlit by the Army Corps of Engineers on Friday afternoon. Because the bigger port will accommodate bigger ships, local government officials are praising the expansion as an economic win, but environmental groups aren't so enthusiastic. They are more concerned about the plan's impact on coral reefs, seagrass, and mangroves — especially after it was discovered earlier this year that the similar PortMiami project unexpectedly destroyed large numbers of coral. 

FACT:  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and partner agencies study thoroughly and plan well prior to construction.  We anticipated that the Miami Harbor navigation channel deepening would affect corals and mitigated this by transplanting corals and providing staghorn coral clippings to a University of Miami nursery for propagation. 

STATEMENT: “This is the only barrier reef in the United States, and we’re dredging two ports 30 miles apart from each other without taking the proper precautions to make sure the reefs are safe,” Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper, tells New Times.  

FACT:  The nation and region need some redundancy to transport commerce.  Each port has its own specific value to Florida – in the way of jobs, cargo and international influences.   Port of Miami and Port Everglades provide different services to the communities of South Florida. In particular, Port Everglades is the only petroleum port for the 12 counties of South Florida; all oil and gas products – gasoline, ship bunker fuel, jet fuel – arrive through Port Everglades. 

FACT:  Each year, 2.3 billion tons of cargo (foreign and domestic) at a value of $2 trillion moves through U.S ports and waterways. There are 59 high-use harbor projects nationally that account for 90% of the cargo moving on the harbors and channels, including Port Everglades and the Port of Miami.

FACT:  The World Economic Forum ranks U.S. infrastructure behind that of most other comparable advanced nations.  The quality of U.S. infrastructure ranks 14th in the world (out of 144), seven slots lower than in 2008; Ports infrastructure ranks 19th, roads 20th.

FACT:  The barrier reefs in southeast Florida have proven resilient despite their location adjacent to growing communities and active ports that accommodate cruise and cargo needs for many in the Southeast. These reefs also respond well to efforts to supplement coral loss through nursery stock and the development of coral reefs outside the influences of the port.  In addition, corals have also repopulated inside and along the navigation channels following past dredging events.

FACT:  The Florida Reef Tract is 358 miles long.


STATEMENT: Silverstein took over the nonprofit, which advocates for the watershed and marine wildlife, in June 2014. She remembers the Port Miami widening and deepening project was brought up as an issue her second day on the job. In the past year, she and her team have maneuvered to keep the project from moving forward until more studies are conducted on marine life — from researching the wildlife to conducting studies and sending concerned letters.

Officials tout the Port Everglades widening and deepening project because it will bring the county thousands of jobs (4,700 in construction and an additional 1,500 from the added cargo capacity) and $30 million in economic impact each year. Port Everglades is the third busiest cruise port and 11th busiest port for freight in the country. It is the leading port in Florida. The recently approved plans will deepen the main canals another eight feet (along with parts of the Intracoastal Waterway) to fit new models of supersized cargo ships from Europe and Asia. It is estimated to cost $374 million, paid through port user fees, federal appropriations, and state grants (not local taxes). 

But earlier this year as PortMiami was dredged and expanded, government divers discovered that large numbers of coral were destroyed and smothered in sediment.  The Army Corps of Engineers (the same group launching the Port Everglades plans) assured other government officials and environmental groups (like Miami Waterkeeper) that replanting the coral and wildlife would protect them from the underwater construction. But it was found that the Army Corps underestimated the amount of coral (particularly the endangered staghorn coral) in the area. As a result, those endangered species of coral were never moved from the impact area and replanted.

FACT:  The Army Corps of Engineers predicted temporary impacts to the reef tract adjacent to the project area as a result of the dredging activity.  This impact was discussed in the National Environmental Policy Act document that was coordinated with the public and all resource agencies, and was affirmed by the issuance of State permits and biological opinions for the activities.  All documents acknowledge the likelihood of sedimentation along the reef tract, and also acknowledge that this impact would be temporary and the reef would be monitored for recovery.  Any impacts deemed permanent by the resource agencies will be fully mitigated. 

FACT:  Staghorn coral are a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and no coral species are listed as endangered on the list of threatened and endangered species.  In December 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed reclassifying the elkhorn and staghorn corals as endangered, but determined in August 2014 that they would remain listed as threatened, partially due to the tens of millions of colonies of Acropora cervicornis found in southeast Florida and the Florida Keys. (www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/invertebrates/staghorncoral.htm) In fact, in late 2014 scientists again discovered more than 38 acres of staghorn coral north of Port Everglades in Broward County.  (www.sun-sentinel.com/local/broward/fl-coral-discovery-20141229-story.html)


STATEMENT: Now Silverstein’s team and other environmental groups fear that what happened at the Miami port project will repeat itself at Port Everglades. In multiple letters sent to the Army Corps and county officials, her team pointed out that more studies need to be conducted after the noted failure at the PortMiami project. “We’re writing letters reminding them they just had a disaster in Miami and they’re going to use the same methodology,” Silverstein says. “They didn’t change their plan at all.”  

FACT:  The Port of Miami navigation deepening to this point was successful.  Once planned monitoring revealed outlying corals were stressed (by above normal water temperature as well as sediment conditions), the Corps of Engineers worked closely with NMFS for months to assess the issue and relocate additional coral.  NMFS was authorized to conduct this relocation, which occurred in October 2014.   

FACT:  Corals in many locations world-wide were stressed in 2014.  The year 2014 ranks as Earth’s warmest since 1880, according to two separate analyses by NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists.  “In unusually warm waters, corals can bleach, expelling the symbiotic algae that produce much of their food. Not only do their vibrant colors fade to white, but if thermal stress is sustained, bleaching may lead to disease, starvation, and death.”  NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch expects another global-scale bleaching event in 2015. (www.climate.gov/news-features/featured-images/el-ni%C3%B1o-revs-coral-bleaching-threat-caribbean and www.climate.gov/news-features/featured-images/2014-surprisingly-rough-coral-reefs-and-el-ni%C3%B1o-looms-2015)


STATEMENT: In letters and environmental studies, Silverstein’s team warns that the dredging impact area will exceed the estimated 150-meter area, that the Army Corps study underestimates the amount of coral and seagrass at risk (like in the PortMiami Project), and that the disposal plan for leaking dredging material is inadequate. However, their most damning point is that the Army Corps environmental impact studies should be deemed unreliable since failures of their PortMiami project studies led to the destruction of large numbers of endangered coral. 

FACT:  There are no endangered coral.

FACT:  The Army Corps of Engineers’ Environmental Impact statements on both projects are thorough and reliable.  All the agencies with jurisdiction for protection of southeast Florida coral resources used the best information available to help develop the plans implemented as part of the Miami and Port Everglades projects. Throughout the Port of Miami project, the project team used adaptive management to protect the marine environment while deepening the harbor.  From both perspectives, the Corps of Engineers believes this project has been successful.  And, yes, there were lessons learned by all agencies.  These have already been applied and will continue to be applied to the Port Everglades expansion plans.  As a Federal agency, the Corps of Engineers tries to learn from all its projects and share knowledge with others.
       

STATEMENT: But the Army Corps maintains that it understands that coral reefs surrounding South Florida and the Caribbean are shrinking at record rates. In the approved Port Everglades project, the Army Crops plans to plant 103,000 nursery-raised corals in 18-acres of reef area. They also plan to relocate 11,500 existing corals and to restore sea grass and mangroves in West Lake Park. But, Silverstein points out, these plans have not been updated after the smothered coral was found in Biscayne Bay.

FACT:  The Port Everglades’ plans were based on the Corps’ original draft mitigation plan for Port of Miami, which was changed due to the NMFS’ Biological Opinion for Port Everglades and the lessons learned at the PortMiami project.  The project team will continue to revise and update the monitoring plan as lessons learned from Miami are finalized.  Additionally, the number of corals transplanted for both projects was determined in partnership with NMFS, the federal agency with jurisdiction for implementing the Endangered Species Act.  NMFS is a cooperating agency on the Environmental Impact Statement and a partner in the mitigation plans.


STATEMENT: Silverstein and other environmental groups remain unconvinced. Silverstein’s group is leading a lawsuit against the Army Corps for violating the National Environmental Policy Act for the damage it caused to marine life in the Port Miami Project. Now that the Chief of Engineers report was signed, Silverstein is running out of options to contest the Port Everglades project but remains optimistic. The public can still bring forward a legal challenge.  

FACT:  Silverstein’s lawsuit has nothing to do with the National Environmental “Protection” Act.  The Army Corps of Engineers incorporates compliance with all federal environmental laws, regulations and executive orders, including the Endangered Species Act, into all of its processes.  In fact, the Corps leads the Nation in balancing projects with the environment.   

FACT:  As the nation’s and world’s population continues to grow, transportation infrastructure must also continue to grow to meet critical needs.
  

STATEMENT: “We definitely feel like the lessons weren’t learned, and we had to lose a whole reef in Miami. We want people to do better next time, but there has been no effort to improve their plans,” Silverstein says. “But I don’t think this is the end of the line in the process.” 

FACT:  Out of 358 miles of Florida Reef Tract, seven acres (0.01 mile2) of reef/hard-bottom was directly affected by the Miami Harbor deepening and a larger area was indirectly affected by sedimentation that was predicted in the project EIS.  The sedimentation effects are similar to those seen after hurricanes Andrew or Sandy, and are expected to last approximately a year or less.  Monitoring of the project area has shown that these indirect effects are already dissipating.  The Florida Reef Tract stretches from the Dry Tortugas National Park off of the Florida Keys to the St. Lucie Inlet in Martin County. Roughly two thirds of the Florida Reef Tract lies within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a marine protected area that surrounds the Florida Keys island chain.  Within the sanctuary, there are more than 6,000 individual reefs in the system.  The reefs are 5,000 to 7,000 years old, having developed since sea levels rose following the ice age and glacier activity, and at their height covered approximately 270,000 acres.  But today, the remaining “living portion” of the reef has declined to 13,800 acres. (http://www.dep.state.fl.us/coastal/habitats/coral/

FACT:  The Miami Harbor Deepening Project directly affected 0.01 mile2 and the Port Everglades Deepening Project would directly affect 0.028 mile2.  The Corps anticipates that indirect effects will dissipate within a year.

FACT:  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Federal and State agency partners, Port of Miami and Port Everglades remain committed to protecting the surrounding environments, serving the local communities, and providing more efficient, sustainable ports. 

Go to http://cnso.nova.edu/ncri/index.html for facts about coral research.  The National Coral Reef Institute (NCRI) was established by Congressional mandate in 1998. NCRI operates at the Nova Southeastern University Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography near Fort Lauderdale, Florida.