Posted on April 11, 2017
By David Bauerlein, jacksonville.com
The St. Johns Riverkeeper filed suit Friday to block dredging of Jacksonville’s ship channel, contending the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to fully account for the environmental harm that dredging will unleash on the river.
The suit against the Army Corps of Engineers seeks to toss the environmental impact statement and freeze any move to dredge the harbor until after a new report is done.
“For years, we’ve been highly concerned about the Army Corps not truly understanding or really digging in — no pun intended — to the impacts of what will happen as a result of the dredge,” St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman said.
She said without more information, Jacksonville is on course to paying for a “dredge to nowhere.”
The suit comes as the Jacksonville Port Authority prepares to go to city leaders in the next two months to request city financial support for the dredging, which the Corps estimated would cost $684 million. JaxPort will ask the city to pay part of the tab.
The Jacksonville office of the Corps has defended the completeness of the environmental impact report.
“We’re continuing our work on the authorized deepening project, and are closely coordinating with federal, state and local agencies,” the Jacksonville office of the Corps said Friday in a statement.
The office referred questions about the lawsuit to the U.S. Department of Justice, which declined to comment.
JaxPort spokeswoman Nancy Rubin said the lawsuit does not affect the port authority’s timetable for going to the city for a funding request.
“We will continue with our talks as planned and put our trust in the legal process,” she said.
The Riverkeeper lawsuit, filed in federal court, contends the Army Corps underestimated the environmental damage from dredging and falls short in proving economic justification for deepening the 40-foot channel.
“We feel there are issues on the economic side and the environmental side that make it highly risky,” Rinaman said.
She said the community “can’t afford to roll the dice with the future of the St. Johns. Once the damage is done, it’s done.”
A major environmental issue is how deepening the river will affect salinity levels in the river because the St. Johns is a delicate balance of saltwater from the ocean and freshwater from inland sources.
Rinaman said the report doesn’t fully assess the effect of salinity changes on the main stem of the river, its tributaries and salt marshes connected to the river.
On the economic side of the analysis, she said, the Corps should have done an analysis covering multiple ports along the East Coast to determine how many ports merit dredging, and whether the national interest justifies Jacksonville’s ship channel being deepened.
The Corps of Engineers has secured environmental permits for the dredging. Lack of funding has stopped the expensive project from moving forward.