It's on us. Share your news here.

Army Corps, Environmentalists Disagree on Likely Impact of River Deepening

Posted on May 3, 2016

By Sebastian Kitchen,

Worst-case scenario.” Those are the oft-used words of environmentalists referring to the damage to Miami’s Biscayne Bay from the deepening of the ship channel there.

It is justification, they say, for concern about the proposed deepening of the St. Johns River for up to 13 miles to make way for larger ships carrying more cargo. That is a move that Jacksonville Port Authority and city leaders argue is necessary to grow the port, compete for trade and create jobs.

An almost $700 million, years-long project to deepen the river is expected to include special hammers and explosives to break up rock and clear the way.

If the federal government is wrong in Jacksonville, as advocates contend it was in Miami, there is no turning back, said St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman. She said her organization plans to use “every avenue available,” including legal challenges, to protect the river and its tributaries.

“It’s an extremely risky project environmentally speaking and economically speaking,” she said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which would oversee the project, contends the effects will be minimal and that the plan includes sufficient mitigation to offset any damage. The corps also defends the work done before, during and after the Miami project and the ongoing monitoring and mitigation there.

“We conducted multiple scientific studies and extensive modeling efforts that indicate there will be very minimal impacts to the environment as a result of this [Jacksonville] project. We are confident the risk of unforeseen environmental impact is very low,” a corps spokeswoman said.

The Army’s findings have projected benefits for the economy with minimal impact on the river and its health. The mitigation plan, based on projected environmental effects, includes monitoring environmental conditions before, during and for a year after the project is completed. It also includes “purchasing 638 acres of high-value wetlands and shoreline to put into a conservation status” with an estimated cost of $2.9 million for the base mitigation plan.

The Riverkeeper is challenging the state permit sought by the Army Corps and expects to challenge the project in federal court.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection received the application from the Corps for the Jacksonville harbor expansion on April 13, 2015, with the DE*****uing the Notice of Intent to issue the permit on Feb. 19.

The Riverkeeper filed for an administrative hearing against the DEP on April 1, arguing the Army Corps and the Jacksonville Port Authority underestimated the potential environmental impact and did not provide for adequate protection or mitigation. The Riverkeeper has since filed amended petitions, including one on Friday, that are under review. The DEP said it cannot take final action on the permit until the petition is resolved.

The permit process lasts anywhere from six months to several years, depending on a variety of factors including the complexity of the project, the potential effects on natural resources and the comprehensiveness of the application. In Miami, about 13 months separated the application for the harbor deepening and the issuance of the permit, which was contested.

“By the time applications are submitted to the Department, these projects have already undergone an extensive Corps planning process,” according to DEP.

The Jacksonville Port Authority intends to become an intervener in the St. Johns Riverkeeper’s challenge to the DEP permit.

Port board member John Falconetti called the Army Corps of Engineers a “very credible organization.”

“Based on their extensive modeling, I feel comfortable that we’re able to mitigate the environmental concerns and strike a nice balance between economic growth and the environment,” he said.

Fellow board member Jim Citrano said: “The corps has looked at that very hard, and personally, as a lifelong environmentalist, I would be hard-pressed to think that there was any danger of saltwater intrusion.”

Citrano said, “We’ve been as responsible as you can be.”

While the legal challenges in Miami did secure more mitigation, they did not stop the project. It was heralded as a boon for the South Florida economy by some and as a boondoggle for the environment by others. The Miami Waterkeeper and other advocacy groups secured help protecting some threatened coral reef in the bay, but the federal lawsuit claiming violation of the Endangered Species Act is ongoing seven months after the completion of the project. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Florida’s DEP each have expressed concerns about the Miami project.

“A lot of this damage is irreparable and a lot of these ecosystems can never be replaced,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Miami Waterkeeper. From her experience, once the project is authorized, it is “almost impossible” to stop.

“Don’t listen to the promises because we got a lot of promises before this project started, too,” Silverstein said.

The Riverkeeper said she is concerned the deepening will result in sedimentation from the millions of cubic yards of rocks and sediment that will be removed, erosion from the wake of the larger ships, and will push salt water farther upstream.

Any damage to the marshes, wetlands and estuaries could affect the habitat of several state and federally listed rare, threatened, and endangered species, according to the Riverkeeper. These areas are also habitat for fisheries and filter out pollutants. They could be lost with the dredging, according to the Riverkeeper.

The corps will monitor salinity, water quality and other factors to ensure effects from the project are “appropriately mitigated,” according to the corps.

“Based on the models and evaluations, wetlands and submerged aquatic vegetation in the project area may be slightly affected by the recommended plan from minor changes in salinity stress frequency; no spatial loss of eelgrass or wetland vegetation is indicated by this analysis,” according to the corps, which said its evaluations were conservative.

The 18 million cubic yards of material that would be moved to create a deeper river is equivalent to 1.6 million dump truck loads that would be dumped offshore, according to the Riverkeeper. And millions more could be dredged for decades during annual maintenance.

“The tragic results of the recent dredging in Biscayne Bay serve as a vivid example of the potential for error in the Corps’ analysis and why a robust mitigation plan is so critical,” Rinaman wrote.

It's on us. Share your news here.
Submit Your News Today

Join Our
Click to Subscribe