A group of environmental organizations and America’s largest trade organization for recreational divers filed suit in federal court last week in Southern Florida to seek protections for coral reefs in Fort Lauderdale. The corals in and around Port Everglades are threatened by a proposed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredging and port expansion project to make way for larger, Panama-canal sized vessels.
“The living coral reefs in South Florida are enormously important, not only as an irreplaceable environment, but as a contributor to the economy of the state and Florida’s diving industry,” said Tom Ingram, President and CEO of the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association (DEMA), one of the groups involved in the legal action. “Each year snorkeling and scuba diving in Florida account for almost 9 million visitor-days, create almost 30,000 full-time equivalent tourism-related jobs, and contribute about $1 billion directly to the Florida economy. DEMA is determined to help protect the natural reef from destruction so that many generations to come can continue to enjoy the opportunity to see, first-hand, this unique and precious natural resource.”
Port Everglades is about 30 miles north of Port Miami, where the Corps recently deepened and widened the Miami Harbor Channel, a project that proved disastrous for the coral colonies in the Miami area. For the PortMiami project, the Corps had assumed there would be minimal impacts to coral, but instead fine-grained sediment from the project injured and smothered tens of thousands of coral colonies and over 250 acres of the reefs. The damage spread out over half a mile from the dredging. Despite these devastating results, the Corps has used the same flawed methodologies to evaluate the Port Everglades proposal, refusing to change any of its procedures to better protect coral.
In the complaint filed last week, the groups allege that the Corps inadequately considered the risks to corals in approving the Port Everglades dredging project, and violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process and the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The complaint points out that the environmental analysis that the Corps and the National Marine Fisheries Service relied on to approve the project simply does not represent “best available science,” the legal standard for agency decision-making, because it fails to account for new information realized during dredging at the Port of Miami (PortMiami), among other reasons.
While the Corps has already acknowledged that its current environmental analysis is not appropriate or sufficient, it does not plan to begin a new formal evaluation of the dredging plans and environmental considerations until January 2017, at the earliest. In the meantime, it is moving forward with engineering and design of the Port Everglades project and seeking Congressional authorization for project funding, still relying on faulty, outdated environmental documents.
“We’re glad the agencies agree more needs to be done, but so far there are no assurances that the new evaluation will be done correctly or in time to make a difference. The details matter. We need to ensure they do this in time and get it right,” said Jaclyn López, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Protecting the coral reef will require more expansive—and likely more expensive—monitoring, mitigation, and changes to dredging methodologies. Because the Corps’ analysis is inadequate, groups fear that the current requested funding levels will fall short of what’s needed to prevent harm to the reef.
“That’s exactly why these documents are intended to be done properly before the project is authorized. The Corps is going about this backwards and the result will be an incomplete execution of the plan to protect the reefs,” said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation.