Environmentalists petition Florida to bar Port of Miami dredging
By Scott Blake
A coalition of local environmentalists has filed a petition with the state to block the Port of Miami's dredging project that officials say is a key to growing the port's cargo business.
The Miami Beach-based Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, the Tropical Audubon Society in Miami and Miami Beach resident Capt. Dan Kipnis filed the petition Monday with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The petition challenges the department's draft permit that would authorize the US Army Corps of Engineers to deepen and widen the seaport's cargo ship channel, Jim Porter, a lawyer for the petitioners, told Miami Today on Tuesday.
The department now must decide whether the petition merits a hearing before a state administrative law judge, which might take six months to a year to schedule and resolve, according to Mr. Porter.
The petitioners would rather have a meeting with the Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] and representatives of Miami-Dade County, which manages the port, and the Army Corps of Engineers, which will supervise the dredging, to resolve the matter short of a hearing, he said.
"We want to meet with the DEP and the other stakeholders to decide how the terms of the permit can be changed to better protect the environment," Mr. Porter said.
The department has received the petition and it is being reviewed by the department's Office of General Counsel, said spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller.
"The timeframe for this review is approximately 15 days," Ms. Miller said.
"The petition may be forwarded to the [state] Division of Administrative Hearings if the petition is legally sufficient," Ms. Miller added. "If not, an order of dismissal will be issued, after which the petitioner will have an opportunity to file an amended petition if they choose to do so."
In a statement issued in response to the petition, Port of Miami Director Bill Johnson defended the dredging project:
"The Port of Miami agrees with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's findings that the permit application for the dredge project is consistent with state requirements," Mr. Johnson said.
"The project has undergone extensive studies and reviews by numerous agencies to ensure that stringent environmental safeguards are in place to preserve the surrounding waters, ecosystems and marine life," he continued. "We respect the permitting process and look forward to a speedy resolution."
The petitioners, meanwhile, said not enough has been done to protect the environment.
"The permit issued by the State of Florida falls short on environmental safeguards for fragile Biscayne Bay and gives multiple exemptions to state rules in place to protect the water quality," Alexis Segal, executive director of Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, said in a statement.
"Our beautiful Biscayne Bay, known for its abundance of sea life and its pristine water quality, will be subjected to years of blasting and dredging, which will foul the waters and damage the ecosystem," Ms. Segal continued.
"And there is no consensus that the project will yield the economic results promised, but the burdens on taxpayers and the environment are sure things," she added.
Mr. Johnson, on the other hand, has staunchly defended the economics behind the "deep dredge," describing it as a necessary step to compete with other seaports for larger cargo vessels following the opening of the enlarged and improved Panama Canal in 2014.
The $150 million Port of Miami dredging, which would generally deepen the cargo channel to 50 feet, has been scheduled for completion in August 2014.
The project has been authorized by Congress. Gov. Rick Scott has agreed to pay what would have been the $75 million federal share of the cost. The remaining $75 million is to be split by the state and the port.
Earlier this month, Mr. Johnson blasted opponents of the dredging, saying he was "flabbergasted" by their stance, calling them "a small group misrepresenting the facts."
The petitioners, however, have questioned whether the project is in "the public interest."
Among the issues they have raised is whether the Department of Environmental Protection followed appropriate procedures to determine the negative impacts and restoration requirements for water quality, sea grass, reef systems, fisheries and "the many threatened, endangered or protected marine species which inhabit or migrate through the project work area, including manatees, bottlenose dolphins, sea turtles and whales."
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