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American Shipper

Miami dredging faces lengthy delay

 

   The Port of Miami learned it will have to wait until late this year to find out if it can proceed with a much-anticipated project to deepen the main channel for next-generation containerships when the schedule for addressing a legal challenge to the excavation was released Tuesday by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
   The delay represents a major setback for the city, which wants to become a first port-of-call for carriers transiting from Asia and create thousands of indirect jobs once a third set of locks is completed in the Panama Canal in late 2014.
   The Office of General Counsel within the agency was notified that the hearing dates for the case are Aug. 14-17; Aug. 27-Sept. 3; Sept. 5-7 and Sept. 10-14, spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said in a response to an American Shipper inquiry.
   A judge will have 30 days from the time the hearing transcript is filed to enter his or her ruling. The department will then have 45 to 90 days to enter a final order, which can be appealed within 30 days, she explained.
   Last year, Florida Gov. Rick Scott took the unusual step of directing the Florida Department of Transportation to cover the $77 milliion federal share of the project after Congress authorized the $150 million Miami harbor project but swore off earmarks, the traditional approach state delegations used to secure funding for navigational improvements.
   A 50-foot channel is necessary to accommodate the 12,000-TEU container vessels that will be able to reach the East Coast with an expanded Panama Canal. 
   Three groups filed objections to the dredging permit issued by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to the Army Corps of Engineers. The Miami Herald identified the challengers in earlier reporting as the Tropical Audubon Society, Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper and Miami Beach boat captain Dan Kipnis. Plans to widen and deepen the ship channel include up to 600 days of “confined blasting” that would remove 5 to 6 million cubic yards of material from the harbor, according to James Porter, the attorney representing the opposition groups. The work would harm endangered, threatened and protected wildlife such as manatees, bottlenose dolphins, stone crabs and snapper, and the resulting silt would damage sea grasses and coral in the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve, according to the petition cited by the paper.
   The Fisher Island Community Association and a condominium group subsequently filed petitions of their own, listing concerns that the blasting could damage a sea wall in the wealthy community and disrupt ferry service.
   Authorities were scheduled to begin the project this summer once a contractor is selected.
   On Jan. 5, the Miami-Dade County Commission passed a resolution urging the Corps of Engineers and the state of Florida to quickly resolve petitions by environmental groups to stop the planned dredging of the Miami ship channel to a depth of 50 feet, according to minutes of the meeting.
   The Board of Commissioners said denial of the dredging permit “will have severe negative financial consequences to the County and the State of Florida” due to the potential loss of business and the large investment already incurred by local government entities to prepare for increased cargo traffic associated with the anticipated completion of infrastructure upgrades.
   Miami-Dade County has already spent $2 million itself on design and engineering plans conducted by the Corps of Engineers. The Port of Miami signed a $57 million contract last September to strengthen docks to support berths at a 50-foot depth, and the state and Miami-Dade County have committed to spend $600 million to build a harbor tunnel directly connecting the port and the freeway so that trucks and other vehicles can avoid the congested downtown area.
   A delay in completing the harbor-deepening project would prevent the Port of Miami from being ready to receive the super-size containerships when the new Panama Canal locks open for business, and make it more difficult to compete with other ports for discretionary cargo, the resolution said. Port officials estimate dredging will enable Miami to double cargo volume by 2020. Last year, the port had a container throughput of more than 900,000 TEUs.
   The commission noted that the Corps of Engineers has committed to create or restore acres of seagrass and coral reef habitat to mitigate any environmental damage during construction.
   “Even though state standards call for no degradation of water quality, we know from past dredging operations that high tides and equipment failures could lead to plumes of sediment and debris that will cloud the clear waters of the Bay, potentially killing sea grass beds far beyond the project’s intended paths,” Debbie Matthews, chairman of the local Sierra Club chapter, said in an Oct. 7 letter-to-the-editor published by the Herald.
   “Even the Army Corps of Engineers, which will conduct the blasting and dredging for the Port of Miami, admits it’s impossible to meet the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve strict water quality standards. And the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has already agreed in the draft permit to make exceptions in order to let this project go through. Secondary, cumulative environmental impacts including subjecting the shallow bay and offshore coral reefs to increased risk of oil spills and groundings haven’t been properly explored or assessed. The community has a right to know more and have its concerns addressed,” she wrote.
   Porter told the Herald that failure to reach a compromise could result in a trial that could take six months to a year to hear.
   Infrastructure supporters and various maritime stakeholders around the country have repeatedly complained that the environmental review process and other permitting requirements for infrastructure projects takes years and needs to be sped up.
   Meanwhile, the commission in the late fall approved the Miami port authority’s purchase of four additional super post-Panamax, electric-drive cranes, at a cost of $9.5 million apiece. The new cranes are scheduled for delivery in the spring of 2013, Kevin Lynskey, the port’s assistant director for business initiatives, confirmed via e-mail. The port currently has nine cranes, two of which are the super post-Panamax variety capable of reaching across the biggest container vessels in the world. — Eric Kulisch

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