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Environmentalists seek to quash Puerto Rico dredging project

Visitors peruse shops in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, in July 2022.

Posted on August 23, 2023

Environmental groups are appealing a ruling that allows a $58.7 million dredging project in Puerto Rico’s San Juan Bay to move forward.

Lawyers for three organizations filed a notice of appeal in the federal District of Columbia Court on Monday, seeking judicial review of last month’s ruling favoring the government in their lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Center for Biological Diversity, El Puente de Williamsburg Inc. and CORALations are suing to stop the project, which they say was fast-tracked amid the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, skirting proper public review and effective environmental analysis.

“We have to keep fighting this destructive dredging project for the sake of the already overburdened communities living on San Juan Bay and the vulnerable ecosystem,” said Federico Cintrón Moscoso, director at El Puente de Williamsburg, in a statement Monday.

The project is a joint undertaking by the Corps of Engineers and the Puerto Rico Ports Authority. About $44.7 million was allocated through the bipartisan infrastructure law and the authority will provide $14 million.

San Juan’s port handles billions in imports and exports each year and is among the top cruise ship destinations in the world. The project, which would remove 2.2 million cubic yards of seafloor over 14 months, is designed to help attract bigger cruise ships and larger oil, cargo and natural gas carriers.

For example, Joel Piza, executive director of the Puerto Rico Ports Authority, told Dredging Today that the project would allow ships to increase their shipments of liquefied natural gas from 5.2 million gallons to 34.3 million gallons.

The Corps awarded a construction contract in June.

The environmental groups argue that the government did not do its due diligence while studying the possible impacts of the project and violated the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. They are particularly concerned about the effects on water quality and coral reefs.

“It’s a critical time for Puerto Rico’s energy future, and we can’t just watch as decisions are made that tie us into even more dependency on fossil fuels for decades to come,” Cintrón Moscoso continued in the statement. “This decision deserves a second look, and we hope the health of our people and environment are taken more seriously the next time around.”

As part of the approval process, the Corps was required to conduct an environmental impact analysis. A draft analysis was released for public review on Aug. 8, 2017, with a 45-day comment period through Sept. 22. Hurricane Irma hit the island on Sept. 7, 2017, killing three people and causing $1 billion in damage. Less than two weeks later, Hurricane Maria roared through, killing nearly 3,000 people and causing an estimated $90 billion in damage.

The government’s lawyers have argued that the project was part of a multiyear planning process with public input.

“The public participation here was adequate,” said Christopher Hair, an attorney with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, in June. “It was not fast-tracked, it took years.”

Judge Carl Nichols ruled in favor of the government on July 24, saying that the Corps conducted an adequate analysis to satisfy legal requirements.

The plaintiffs have only filed a notice of appeal, so it’s unclear on what grounds they will argue against Nichols’ ruling.

The lawsuit names the Corps, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Lieutenant General Scott Spellman, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.


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