An expansion plan that Port Everglades calls essential for handling the bigger cargo ships plying the world's trade routes would cause far more environmental damage than originally claimed, according to the lead federal agency on ocean protection.
The $313 million project with the Army Corps of Engineers calls for blasting and dredging through limestone and coral to deepen the port's entrance channel from 42 feet to 48 feet. The expansion is among several projects the port says could create 7,000 jobs in South Florida over the next 15 years.
But the National Marine Fisheries Service says a draft environmental impact statement prepared by the Corps "significantly understates the project's impacts to seagrass, coral reef and mangrove habitat" and underestimates the amount of work that would be needed to mitigate the damage.
The fisheries service said it may take the matter to the assistant secretary of the Army and the President's Council on Environmental Quality if its concerns are not resolved, steps that could further delay a project in the works for 17 years.
Adding to the urgency is the need to finish the environmental review by November, so the project could qualify for funding under a massive water projects bill making its way through Congress.
All sides held a four-hour meeting Friday in Tallahassee to try to resolve some of the issues, with officials from various state and federal environmental agencies in attendance. But the letter from the fisheries service makes clear they are far apart on their assessments of the likely environmental damage.
The Corps says the work would destroy 15.17 acres of coral reef. The fisheries service says the true figure is 21.66, due to the impact of the construction work, the destruction caused by rubble bouncing around the ocean floor and the destabilization caused by blasting and fracturing the reef. The project would cause coral damage on "an unprecedented scale in the southeastern U.S.," according to the fisheries service.
It also says the Corps' plan to mitigate the damage by placing limestone boulders in the ocean to support coral growth is inadequate and won't compensate for the loss of natural reef.
"A pile of boulders is not a coral reef and will not become a coral reef over time," the letter states.
The fisheries service proposes instead that seven coral nurseries be established, using corals transplanted from the reef that will be destroyed, and these corals allowed to grow so they can eventually be transferred to natural reefs.
As for seagrass, the Corps says the work would destroy 4 acres of habitat. The fisheries service said it would destroy 8.45 acres, since the Corps' estimate only counts currently vegetated areas as habitat.
The Environmental Protection Agency filed a letter seconding many of the fisheries service's objections.
Eric Summa, environmental chief of the Corps' Jacksonville district, said he was optimistic about resolving the differences by November. He downplayed the differences in damage assessments, saying they appeared to stem more from misunderstandings than from major differences of opinion.
"We had a positive meeting," he said.
Port Everglades director Steve Cernak said he also was optimistic.
"I don't see anything insurmountable," he said. "I think there are ways to do the project and minimize the impact. I think we all have to understand that the proposal has finally advanced after 17 years to where this dialogue could occur."
If the project doesn't go forward, Port Everglades director Steve Cernak said, the port will start fading among the nation's East coast ports and the region will experience the irritation of more truck traffic to serve a consumer market that would be more efficiently served by cargo ships, he said.
"The major trade lanes have larger vessels," he said. "If we're going to remain viable as a port, we need to make these improvements so we can handle these larger vessels. They're coming in now, but they're light-loaded. If we don't make these improvements, we'll be left by the wayside."
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