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

Responds the Corps' Scarborough: "We're trying to, but if the county cannot afford to build the disposal area required for this material, then we can't dredge it."

Two years ago Hyde Shipping Corporation, then the Miami River's third-largest shipper, moved its operations to Port Everglades, a deep-water port in Broward where a ship's size and draft are irrelevant. The company's general manager, Al McNab, cites the river's shallowness, the inconvenient tides, and the crowded conditions as the primary reasons for the move. In addition, Hyde wanted to expand its operations but was boxed in on the river by neighboring businesses. Any leasing costs the move incurred have been offset by the increase in cargo the company can now handle, he says: Hyde now handles three and a half ships per week as opposed to the two it serviced on the Miami River -- and it can load ships to their capacity without worrying that a heavily burdened ship will hit bottom.

That said, it was more affordable for Hyde to move than it would be for either Antillean or Bernuth: Hyde leased its facilities on the river, while the other two firms own theirs.

If the Miami River shippers did decide to move, Dade's only other port, the county-run Port of Miami, would not be an alternative. "We didn't build the Port of Miami for ships that draw ten or twelve feet of water," explains port director Carmen Lunetta. According to Lunetta, only a couple of ships that call at the Port of Miami are as small as the largest Miami River vessels. Otherwise, he says, the port's ships are far larger, and all use heavy-duty gantry cranes to load and unload. The largest ship, owned by Maersk Inc., is 970 feet long, has a 39-foot draw, and carries 4500 containers, Lunetta points out. "It's like comparing a flea with an elephant."

The only other South Florida facility conceivably appropriate for the river's largest shippers is a small, privately owned port in Dania. "We could take more [ships]; we could handle a lot more," offers the port's director, Bob Randolph.

The shippers say they would have to completely change the way they do business if they were forced to move from the river, increasing the size of their ships and cargo to offset the added expenses. In doing so, they argue, they'd lose their Caribbean and South American niche markets.

Nor, say the shippers and their supporters, could the foreign markets afford to support larger ships without the proper dockside technology and demand for goods. Exclaims Babon: "Haiti would catch pneumonia!"

All kidding aside, as the years continue to pass with no dredging, the Haitian economy might be in for a cold spell. Because while the Corps has never put forward the idea of completely shutting down the Miami River as a navigational channel -- a step it has previously taken with small, unused boat channels, but one that would be unprecedented for a heavily trafficked commercial corridor -- the sediments are slowly accomplishing that task on their own.

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