On July 16, 2014, Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, Captain Dan Kipnis, Coral Morphologic, Miami-Dade Reef Guard Association, Sierra Club Miami Group, and Tropical Audubon Society, filed a citizens’ notice of suit letter alleging that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the Endangered Species Act, in addition to several permit conditions by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) during the PortMiami Deep Dredge project.
In its letter, the environmental coalition identified a long list of violations, including that the Army Corps’ contractors are not protecting threatened coral species, allowing excessive amounts of dredge sedimentation buildup on the reefs, not sufficiently onitoring sedimentation, and failing to move dredge ships away from corals that are exhibiting signs of injury or degradation.
“The Army Corps of Engineers has, from the very beginning, failed to comply with even the limited conditions placed on them by their permit,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director and waterkeeper for Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper. “As our local divers, scientists, and fishermen well know, Floridians have already lost over 80% of our coral reefs. These resources are critical for Miami’s economy and culture. We cannot allow the Army Corps to cut corners and continue to harm the little bit that remains of these irreplaceable natural resources.”
Colin Foord, a marine biologist with Coral Morphologic, one of the groups who conducted a “coral rescue mission” in the dredging area, stated, “I know firsthand how vibrant and special these reefs are, and these ‘urban corals’ off of Miami should be treasured and protected. I’ve seen the devastation that the dredging is having over a wide expanse of the natural reef. Everything nearby is getting buried by sediment, and at times when diving, it can be almost impossible to see your hand in front of your face. If it continues like this, many of Miami’s corals will not survive the duration of this project.”
The notice of suit letter alleges that, since the project commenced in November 2013, the Army Corps has failed to comply with a number of requirements – to the detriment of valuable and threatened local marine species. According to the letter, the Army Corps was also well aware that a large number of staghorn coral colonies – a species listed as threatened, but soon to become endangered – were living adjacent to the dredging area. Despite this, the Army Corps made no effort to protect, transport, or monitor these rare and protected corals.
The 2011 DEP permit, issued following a previous challenge by Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, Dan Kipnis, and Tropical Audubon Society, was relatively limited in scope and straightforward in its requirement that the Army Corps take certain steps to mitigate the environmental impact of the dredging project.
“It is DEP’s permit that the Army Corps is violating, and if DEP isn’t going to enforce its rules, we, the citizens of South Florida, will stand up for our own local resources,” said Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society. “Local groups and citizens should not have to spend their time and money making sure that the government follows its own laws.”
These reefs at risk– and the fish and marine life they support – are critical to the survival of Miami’s tourism, diving, fishing, and seafood industries, which are engines for the local economy.
“Once the Army Corps completes the dredging project, it will leave town, leaving South Florida to suffer the consequences,” noted Captain Dan Kipnis, a veteran of multiple actions against the Army Corps projects.
Under the terms of the DEP permit, Miami-Dade County and its taxpayers, not the Army Corps of Engineers, will have to foot the bill for any environmental damage that exceeds the permit’s allowances.
“In an ironic twist, Miami’s taxpayers will suffer a double loss – permanent damage to our invaluable natural resources on the one hand, and a requirement that we pay the cost of the damage on the other,” Silverstein added.
According to the letter filed Tuesday, if the Army Corps does not come into compliance with the Endangered Species Act and if the DEP does not take steps to enforce the permit, at the expiration of sixty days the environmental coalition may then take further legal action, including the filing of a formal lawsuit, to protect Miami’s natural resources.
Press Release, July 18, 2014; Image: Miami Dade