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

Jordan Monocandilos, the Greek-born president of Bernuth Lines, says he and his colleagues are perfectly happy to continue doing business as they've been doing for decades -- he founded his company in 1972 and now occupies ten acres on the river -- if only the Corps would dredge. "The river limits me on height to go under a bridge, I'm limited on beam to go under the bridges, I'm limited on length to make the turn around bridges," Monocandilos gripes. "You cannot make the river wider or move the bridges. So goddamn, you can dredge the river! Give me one out of the four so I can live."

While it's clear Monocandilos would benefit enormously from dredging, as would his counterparts across the river at Antillean, would anyone else? The shipping industry throws around huge numbers to argue that river shipping is an enormous boon to the community: Bohnsack estimates that the Miami River supports a $3.9 billion industry, based on the value of its export cargo -- which would make it the fifth-largest port in Florida. She is also quick to say that the river boasts 32 shipping terminals, a number that sounds far more impressive than it really is: A terminal could mean anything from the multi-use facilities of Bernuth and Antillean to a stretch of sea wall where a small Haitian vessel might dock. The latter is more often the case.

Pressed, Bohnsack clarifies that Bernuth and Antillean control about three-fourths of the river's business. And of the two dozen or so ships on the river that could use the full fifteen-foot depth of the navigational channel, half are owned by those two companies.

And Bohnsack admits her dollar figures are only guesses. She came up with the export values by extrapolating from a seven-year-old Beacon Council study that estimated the value of river cargo at $2.3 billion: She took that figure and, based on the published reports reflecting the Port of Miami's growth in the same time period, calculated a similar (ten percent) increase in Miami River shipping. The resulting calculation for the current value of the river's cargo has already seen publication in a Florida shipping trade journal and a public-private status report on the river.

Even the researcher who conducted the Beacon Council's study admits his report wasn't terribly scientific or thorough. "We depended on the operators for the information," recalls Charles Jainaraian, who is now the executive director of the Summit of the Americas Center at Florida International University. Jainaraian says he conducted the study with the assistance of trade consultant and former shipper Teo Babon, upon whom he "extensively relied to wring the information out of everybody."

Adds Fran Bohnsack: "The folks on the river are pretty much competitive among themselves. Getting them to provide that information is difficult. Or they're not sophisticated in keeping records. You don't know how much I'd like to say I have these numbers. But the river is hard to make concrete; it's a slippery creature."

Don't bother asking how much revenue trickles down to the community: No one knows. The best that can be offered is abstract examples. Babon, who was a founder of the Miami River Marine Group and who has been involved in the Miami shipping industry for years, takes a stab: "Let's take an example of clothing material that comes down from Charlotte, North Carolina," he begins. "The trucker is most likely a Miami trucker who goes all the way up to North Carolina with a container that's stored in Miami somewhere. He brings the cargo down and it's shipped off to Haiti. When the cargo comes back -- in the form of manufactured clothing -- the trucker takes the clothing back to North Carolina. The truck is leased out of Miami. A Miami storage yard keeps the container. The people who repair the container and the truck are from Miami, to say nothing of the stevedore service to remove the container and the people who have to service the vessel."

Assuming for the sake of argument that the benefit to the community is measurable doesn't in itself justify spending $100 million in public money to dredge. Not according to a 1992 Dade County grand jury, anyway. "The benefit dredging brings to Dade County citizens as a whole versus the cost to each citizen has yet to be considered and resolved," the grand jury wrote. "It is readily apparent that few, other than the businesses on the Miami River, will benefit from its dredging. Therefore, the businesses should bear the financial responsibility of providing the local matching funds now required."

This suggestion (which carries no legal weight) rankles the shippers. Regardless of the industry's value to the community, they say, the Corps is mandated to dredge. "Why should they be the first to pick up the cost if they're entitled to it as all federal navigational channels are?" asks Bohnsack. (The Corps is continually dredging the nation's federal navigational waterways. Mostly, though, they are routine maintenance operations; Miami's toxicity and disposal difficulties are unique.)

Says Babon: "It's not a matter of the shippers pushing an issue that's not practical. They have the right to demand that the river's dimensions aren't lowered or restricted by impediments, manmade or otherwise, and they have the right to demand that the river be dredged."

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