PortMiami dredging study by Army Corps to take a fourth year

Posted on October 20, 2021

PortMiami is still awaiting results of a $3 million study begun by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 2018 to evaluate widening and deepening the harbor. Results are now expected in September 2022, one year after the final completion date previously set for September this year.

The Army Corps team doing the study requested an extension of time and funds from headquarters since they are still in conversations to address the environmental concerns over any possible work in the harbor.

“They have asked for an extension to our headquarters, which has been informally granted; they’re just waiting for the actual signature on it, so they’re going ahead,” David Ruderman, spokesperson of the Army Corps, told Miami Today.

A specialized segment of the Corps of Engineers called US Army Engineer Research and Development Center is examining the effects of potential navigation improvements to the harbor. It considers engineering and economic analysis, and the environmental concerns such as turbidity and sedimentation associated with dredging.

The study would be completed with the signing of the Chief of Engineer’s Report to be submitted to Army Corps headquarters in Washington, where the Chief of Engineers is to review the findings and give it a stamp of authority. After that, the report with the proposed project for the harbor would seek congressional authorization to be considered as part a congressional funding bill or in the Water Resources Development Act, Mr. Ruderman said.

Vessel pilots of the Biscayne Bay Pilots Association (BBPA) are having maneuvering difficulties while bringing ships entering the outer entrance channel from the ocean. This delays transportation since pilots had to wait for better conditions or lighten their loads to transit safely, the website of the US Army Corps of Engineers explains as a reason for the feasibility study.

In addition, the last harbor expansion took place in 2015, but as the Panama Canal expansion was completed in 2016, vessel sizes increased, modifying the patterns and needs for the cargo industry worldwide, including the needs of PortMiami to accommodate larger vessels.

“Additional needs consist of allowing a larger turning radius for larger Post-Panamax vessels in Lummus Island Turning Basin, reducing cruise ship turning/transit time in the Fisher Island Turning Basin, and allowing larger Post-Panamax vessels and cruise ships in Fisherman’s Channel to transit past moored containerships, specifically when the gantry cranes are loading them” says the Army Corps website.

But although widening and deepening the harbor would result in larger vessels coming to PortMiami, the dredging needed for the expansion also comes with environmental concerns. “There are environmental considerations, there are dredged material disposal considerations [and] there are probably very minor design considerations that just could not be resolved in time” to complete the study this year, said Mr. Ruderman.

“The Corps of Engineers is working constantly with what we call resource agencies like the National Ocean and Atmospheric Agency, National Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries Service, and of course Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the various layers of federal, but also state and local agencies that regulate and are tasked to protect or have their interests included in the decisions made in this kind of federal study,” Mr. Ruderman said.

Rachel Silverstein, executive director of non-profit Miami Waterkeeper, told Miami Today her organization did three different testings and later published a study in which they found that from the 2015 dredging at least 560,000 corals were killed – “and likely that’s an underestimate by about half,” she said.

“Those corals were smothered by the sediment that was kicked up by the dredging and there was also a lot of impacts inside of Biscayne Bay,” Ms. Silverstein said. “There were lots of violations of the permits, there was not very much enforcement and the lots of information and protections that were supposed to be in place failed to protect the corals and the water,” she continued.

If the studies determines that additional dredging is to take place, Ms. Silverstein said, the Army Corps should consider not allowing any leaks from the dredge ship that’s hauling the sediment. In the 2015 work, “a lot of it leaked on the way” to take it offshore to dispose of it safely.

“They were doing something called rock chopping, which is when you cut through the rock without suctioning out the sediment and so that leaves a lot of loose rocks and sediment on the seafloor that can move around and harm corals,” Ms. Silverstein explained.

“They didn’t do proper environmental monitoring or follow the protections laid out in the permit for when their triggers were met to do additional monitoring or to take immediate action to move the ship or to take some other action to protect the corals like stopping dredging in the whole project from 2013 to 2015,” Ms. Silverstein said. “They never stopped dredging to protect the corals even though all these triggers were met where they should have had to take action to avoid the impacts, so it ended up being a complete disaster for the environment.”

Mr. Ruderman said the Army Corps is considering the environmental concerns in the study. “They [Army Corps] have to figure out how to dispose of the dredge material, what’s the possible beneficial use,” he said. “Some of this material that’s dredged up can be used to reinforce barrier islands, or if not, where are you going to put it? I know that these are considerations that the team is addressing,” he said.

In 2015 there were around 388 vessels worldwide ranging from 7,600 to 12,000 TEUs and 124 vessels greater than 12,000, the website of the US Army Corps says. By 2030, the estimate is that there would be around 742 vessels between 7,600 to 12,000 TEUs and 458 vessels greater than 12,000 TEUs. Ports all along the Gulf and the Atlantic Coast are deepening their harbors to accommodate the traffic of bigger vessels, Mr. Ruderman detailed.

If a deepening or widening were to take place, larger vessels could come to PortMiami. Some economic benefits listed by the Corps of Engineers include larger vessel access, more efficient use of existing vessels, decreased congestion, less cargo handling, less tug assistance costs for commodities, and more efficient use of waterway transportation. “With a deeper/wider harbor, tidal delays could potentially be reduced,” says the website.

For the study, the Army Corps is using a planning model to develop a recommendation for a navigation project. Also, the ship simulator at the US Army Engineer Research and Development Center is being utilized to evaluate the proposed channel modifications, the website says.

Additional public outreach meeting is to take place in upcoming months, although Mr. Ruderman did not specify when.


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