Port Everglades and local elected officials marked the first step in a $437 million expansion to make way for expected massive new cargo ships with a celebratory press conference on Tuesday.
“It’s a critical milestone in getting there,” acting port director Glenn Wiltshire said afterwards of the $29 million Congress approved this month to move a Coast Guard station blocking work.
The work will extend the port channel by more than six football fields, widen turns and deepen parts of the port to 55 feet.
But environmentalists say not so fast, fearful that coral damage that occurred at a PortMiami dredge completed in 2015 could be repeated at Port Everglades. The dredge also comes at a time when scientists are struggling to understand a new coral disease that was first detected near Virginia Key in 2014 after the dredge project got underway. The disease has infected at last half of Florida’s tract, the only inshore reef tract in the continental U.S., and spread to the Caribbean.
“We're still in the middle of a devastating coral disease outbreak that has absolutely decimated the Florida reef tract,” Miami Waterkeeper executive director Rachel Siverstein said. “There is still an open question as to whether or not the dredging project at the Port of Miami had anything to do with the origin and then subsequent spread of that disease.”
The Fort Lauderdale project, first pitched in 1996 and approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2015, was challenged by Miami Waterkeeper after the Corps said it planned to use the same safeguards to protect coral and nearby seagrass that it used at PortMiami. Waterkeeper sued and in 2017 the Corps agreed to delay the dredge while it took a look at new information.
Silverstein said Tuesday details of the new safeguards have still not been made public.
“We haven't heard any public updates about what the plans are, how they're going to protect the corals, how they're going to learn lessons and avoid the same mistakes of the past,” she said. “All we have is this flyer from the press conference.”
To address damage allowed under its permit, port officials said they plan to replant more than 100,000 nursery-grown coral branches over existing reefs and in new artificial reefs. They also plan to obtain mitigation credits in West Lake Park nearby, and restore seagrass beds.
But Silverstein said it’s unclear if the mitigation bank has enough credits remaining.
“So it’s not exactly clear how that mitigation is actually going to be taking place,” she said.
In addition to planting coral and restoring seagrass, deputy port director David Anderton said the Corps has also changed how sediment is hauled offshore by boats called spider barges. At PortMiami, sediment stirred up during the dredge and spilling as the barges moved to an offshore dump site were blamed for smothering more than 90 percent of nearby coral.
Over the last year, he said officials from agencies working on the project have focused on minimizing the sediment by writing limits into contracts and better understanding how the sediment moves through water.
It “will then in turn dramatically reduce the amount of sedimentation that's released into the water,” he said. "It's adding additional costs but it's the right thing to do.”
Silverstein, however, said the agencies need to allow the public to comment on the plans and said they have yet to provide a formal evaluation of the damage done to reefs near PortMiami.
“It's disappointing to see that they're moving forward full speed with these deepening and widening projects without having done the environmental piece that they're supposed to have updated and expanded.” she said. “Without even having given the public back the reef that was taken from them during [the PortMiami] project, they're now pushing forward with a new dredging project.”