Goo Grief

There's a million cubic yards of toxic sludge on the bottom of the Miami River and you may as well get used to it

But this suggestion met with a hail of opposition. Critics worried about the aesthetics of a towering glob of muck and feared the sludge's potential impact on nearby mangrove wetlands, as well as on a critical wildlife habitat and a manatee protection area. So the Corps offered a second site: privately owned land at NW 37th Avenue and 30th Street just east of Miami International Airport. Bean counters estimated that the land would cost around $40 million to buy, all of which would be billed to local taxpayers, along with another $40 million for land preparation and hauling. (The dredging itself would cost between $12 million and $22 million, most of which would be borne by the federal government.) Problem number two: The designated dumping ground is the same location where Metro plans to build its highly touted multimodal transportation center, a mega-rail-and-bus terminal that is viewed as the centerpiece of a future and superior public transportation system.

Officials are desperately tossing around other, less likely options: dredging in selected parts of the river (which would be less expensive but wouldn't tackle the entire problem); depositing the sludge in holes in the bottom of Biscayne Bay and covering them with clean sludge (an unfeasible alternative in that it raises the same issues as open-ocean dumping); and alternative methods of decontamination -- what Susan Markley facetiously calls "double-secret remedies" (all of which will probably be deemed too expensive, inappropriate, or harebrained).

"No path is an easy path," comments the EPA's Bob Howard. "For any one of the options, there's some interest group or some significant issue that will cause certain stakeholders to ask, 'Well, why aren't you going with this other alternative?'"

In the end, what may occur is ... nothing. Some government regulators are giving serious consideration to the possibility of leaving the sediments alone: a necessary evil. Concludes the Corps' Jerry Scarborough: "It's an unfortunate alternative, but it may be the only alternative by default."

If so, Godspeed to the person whose job it is to tell the shippers.

Beginning just west of the 27th Avenue bridge and continuing all the way to the salinity dam at 37th Avenue, the Miami River narrows from about 125 feet to 90 feet and is often clogged with boats. Large steel-hulled ships, anywhere from approximately 100 to 300 feet in length, are moored bow-to-stern on both banks, covering nearly every foot of available dock space. Since the U.S. Coast Guard requires a navigable thoroughfare at least 50 feet wide, the shippers have to coordinate among themselves and shuffle their boats to comply. The two largest shippers, Bernuth Lines and Antillean Marine, have headquarters here on opposite sides of the river. If they were to bring in their largest vessels (which are about 300 feet long and 50 feet wide) and dock them directly opposite one another, they would leave enough room for a tugboat to pass, and not much more.

It's a long way from the mouth of the river to these terminals -- about four miles. On a favorable tide a tug might be able to haul a ship that distance in around two hours. But it's never an easy task. Tug captains and shippers have plenty to worry about: the narrowness, which allows little room for error and can prevent one ship from leaving the river while another is arriving; sometimes-tricky currents; tight bends; low bridge clearance; the nuisance of many drawbridges, including twice-a-day rush-hour curfews as well as frequent breakdowns; regulations designed to protect manatees; and, of course, the river's sediment-induced shallowness, which necessitates keeping to the center -- swept relatively clean of muck by the constant passing of larger ships -- and prevents heavily laden freighters from leaving at any time other than high tide. (A delay in loading could delay a ship's departure by twelve hours.) Even with a high tide, ships can't be loaded to their capacity. The president of Bernuth says every foot lost in the river to sediment costs him 300 tons of cargo.

With all these headaches, why bother? Why not go somewhere else?
Ask this question and a complaining shipper will suddenly transform into the river's biggest cheerleader. For one, he'll explain, the terminals along the river are all privately owned and staffed by nonunion labor, so they are free of the hassles and expenses of publicly owned and unionized ports (like the Port of Miami). There are no special taxes or fees for shippers who use the river. In addition, the shipper will say, the river terminals, unlike the deep-water ports, are outfitted to handle shallow-draft boats, whose cargo might range from containers of clothing to tractors to used bicycles, all in volumes that require nothing more technologically advanced than a simple stick crane to load and unload.

The river's shipping entrepreneurs and their supporters argue that their business occupies a unique niche in the region's shipping industry. The river allows small Caribbean nations that have no deep-water ports of their own to do their importing and exporting. The shippers operate on a very narrow profit margin and can't afford the cost of docking at the Port of Miami, explains Fran Bohnsack, executive director of the Miami River Marine Group, a nonprofit river-shipping association. The river, with its low overhead and small terminals, is perfectly suited to their type and volume of cargo.

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