The Biscayne Times

Dec 12th
Collateral Damage PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jim W. Harper - BT Contributor   
November 2011

The environmental side effects of the Port of Miami tunnel and deep dredge could be explosive

bigstock_Port_Of_Miami_5161975Hold on to your sandbars, Miami. You’re about to get drilled and pounded, but not in the good way. Bullies are here to give Biscayne Bay a beating.

Near downtown, the birds of Jungle Island are atwitter over the arrival of a giant shaft that will bore underneath the bay to create the Port of Miami tunnel. Soon this project will be joined by an even bigger one. The “deep dredge” is ready to literally blow up the Port of Miami.

Biscayne Bay has been called Miami’s backyard. Did you know that your backyard is going to be pelted by the equivalent of 600 bombs?

That’s the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers’ estimate of the number of explosions needed to deepen the port. Expected to begin in November, this project’s proximity to the port’s other project, the tunnel, means havoc both below and above the surface of the bay. Downtowners, South Beachers, and Fisher Islanders (gasp!) may smell the dead fish and feel the shockwaves for the next two years. (Both projects are scheduled to go till 2014.)

We face the dilemma of responsible urban growth inside a sensitive habitat. Can the giant Maersk container ships and the gentle manatee get along?

The state seems to think so. The drafted environmental permit for Deep Dredge (officially, Miami Harbor Phase III Federal Channel Expansion) will be approved unless new appeals are raised. A coalition of environmental groups won the right to review the state permit until October 24, and their representative expects additional review time will be granted, owing to the project’s barrel of monkeys -- I mean, documents.

As for the tunnel, the billion-dollar project is chugging along on Watson Island, and final approval of the environmental permits was expected by November. The project’s website claims that it “creates no significant long- or short-term environmental impacts.”

That’s hard to swallow, but of the two projects, the deep dredge is the more threatening and disruptive one. It’s really hard to believe that it can contain itself to the shipping channels. Unexpected currents could turn its underwater projectile silt into an environmental threat.

Silt can smother coral and, as it so happens, an extremely rare coral is growing on the jetty of Government Cut. The coral deserves to be protected, but its location is not covered by the project’s current preparations and remediations. It has no insurance.

The coral was unknown to exist in Florida outside of the Dry Tortugas until 2009, when it was discovered near the port by Colin Foord, a marine biologist and co-owner of Coral Morphologic in Overtown. (Go online to see his recent TEDxMIA lecture about this “super coral.” )

The rare coral is a hybrid of two endangered stony corals called staghorn and elkhorn, the first corals in the U.S. to be listed as threatened. Endangered-species legislation does not typically cover hybrids, but this coral can reproduce and, based on Foord’s observations, withstand extreme conditions better than its two progenitors. And it glows in the dark! Foord hopes his hybrids end up in the Keys with the Coral Restoration Foundation.

Many other corals in and around Government Cut must be harvested and transplanted, although small specimens and species will be left behind. Regulations call for saving hard corals above four inches and soft corals above ten inches. Another form of mitigation involves the construction of 25 acres of artificial reef in nearby waters. As for seagrass, it’s expected that eight acres of beds will be destroyed; the deep dredge must replant 18 acres.

But what about all the mud? Both the dredge and tunnel projects share this dilemma. The tunnel won approval to dump its sediments onto Virginia Key, the island along the Rickenbacker Causeway that has long been used as Miami’s toilet, both legally and illegally. This legal landfill will be located near North Point’s new mountain bike trail (see “Park Patrol” in this issue).

Dr. Dredge considered using Virginia, too, but then dumped her. Plans call for his spoils to be deposited either in the bay or offshore in a place called the Miami Ocean Dredged Material Disposal Site. Yuck.

Environmental groups have and should continue to monitor these projects. At the same time, Greater Miami has to deal with its growing pains.

Expansion activity concentrated near downtown is preferable, in my opinion, to sprawl that invades natural areas. I still can’t believe that an international airport was almost erected in the Everglades. Let’s not go there again. Let’s practice urban infill and redevelopment of existing infrastructure.

Modern Miami is far removed from its natural state. Many islands, including the port itself, were created from the spoils of previous dredging in the bay. Many of us live on land that used to be underwater.

Boom! Five hundred and ninety-nine blasts in the bay, five hundred and ninety-nine blasts; take one down, pass it around, five hundred and ninety-eight blasts in the bay….


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