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

During a recent tour of the Miami River, Dade County's chief biologist Susan Markley reported a highly unusual sighting. "Look!" she said, sounding alarmed. "There's a guy in the water. Over there."

Indeed, just east of the NW Fifth Street bridge, a shirtless man was sitting quietly in the shallows near the sloping bank, submerged to his ribs. Seeing the county motorboat and its passengers staring at him, the man smiled broadly and waved a vigorous two-armed salute.

"Yuck," Markley muttered as she returned the greeting, knowing all too well what the man was digging his toes into: "Trace metals: lead, copper, cadmium, zinc, sometimes mercury and other metals. Occasionally organic chemicals like PCBs, PAHs, pesticides, and petroleum hydrocarbons." Not to mention what's in the water itself (raw sewage, for starters).

Thick, silty, and toxic, sediments have been accumulating ever since Miami's early inhabitants began the ignominious tradition of wantonly dumping their refuse in the waterway. Contaminated stormwater and untreated sewage, as well as shoreline erosion, fuel spills, and industrial waste have caused the buildup, "a long-term historic record of the pollution climate," in Markleyspeak. The deposits now impede the largest freighters that use the cargo terminals at the western end of the river. There's also widespread concern -- although not much confirming data -- that the contaminated sediments threaten the environmental health of Biscayne Bay.

For decades regulators and politicians have debated whether, and how, to dredge the river. In the process they've demonstrated a remarkable ability to exhaustively study the issue -- convening committees, organizing meetings, conducting studies, reviewing the studies, convening more committees to order more studies -- without managing to agree on a solution.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for maintaining the river, says it needs to be dredged for navigational reasons. But the process is mired in knotty questions of disposal methods and cost. One option would be to dump the crud in the open ocean. But that would require a unique federal waiver that could set a fateful environmental precedent. Another possibility would be to deposit the stuff at a special site on land. Estimated costs hover around $100 million, almost all of which would come from local government coffers.

This unsavory dilemma begs a closer look at the nature of the river's shipping industry and the necessity of dredging. Two companies control an estimated 75 percent of the river's freight trade and operate the largest vessels that are now scraping the river's sludge-filled bottom. Clearing the river would certainly help keep these companies afloat. The benefits to the community, though, are far more questionable.

The sight of half-clothed people paddling around the Miami River was common once, back when it was a shallow waterway that meandered through the South Florida wilderness. The stream's natural headwaters were located just west of today's 29th Avenue, which, until the mid-Twentieth Century, was still part of the Everglades. Its width varied from about 300 feet at Biscayne Bay to about 20 feet where it joined the wetlands; its depth ranged from about 14 feet at its mouth to only a few feet in other places. The Tequesta Indians and, later, Spanish missionaries, lived on its banks. The first Europeans to settle in Miami built their homes next to the river in the early 1800s. It was only natural that Henry Flagler would build his hotel, the Royal Palm, at the prime location of the river's mouth, near where the far less picturesque Dupont Plaza stands today.

In 1933 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the river, creating a 5.5-mile-long rectilinear channel 15 feet deep and between 90 and 150 feet wide. The Corps also built a salinity dam at NW 36th Street that essentially shut down the river's natural current and helped stop the intrusion of saltwater into the young city's underground drinking-water supply. The effort also allowed larger boats to sail up the entire length of the river; as the river's users increased, so did the pollution. Besides the growing boat traffic and its attendant waste, the city's sewage emptied directly into the river: It was an open sewer.

Talk about redredging the Miami River began in the 1960s. In the 1970s the Corps concluded that it wouldn't do a whole lot of good to dredge if the sedimentation problem were to continue. In response, the county and the City of Miami began to attack the problem at its source, retrofitting inadequate stormwater connections, shoring up sea walls and the riverbank. Finally the Corps concluded in a 1990 study that there was a navigational justification to dredge.

How contaminated are the sediments? To find out, EPA scientists bury microscopic organisms in sediment samples and measure the critters' ability to withstand the trace metals and organic chemicals therein. Says Bob Howard, the acting chief of EPA's wetlands section: "We had a lower survival rate in those sediments than any we've ever tested."

Scientists also know that the sediments are migrating out of the river into the bay: Natural currents, as well as boat hulls and propellers, kick up clouds of polluted muck, which float out with the tide. But neither the Corps nor anyone else has been able to determine what biological impact the sediments might be having on the bay's ecosystem. (Several agencies, including the EPA and Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, are researching that issue now.)

As most Miamians know, the river itself is largely barren of aquatic life, in part because of the pollution, but also because the water has little dissolved oxygen and because the opening and closing of the salinity dam (in times of high rainfall, the gate is opened to allow water to drain out of upland areas) causes wide fluctuations in salt content. "Sometimes there are a few fish, but not much diversity," comments Markley, who is chief of the natural resources division of Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management (DERM). "There aren't many creatures that can tolerate those sorts of extremes." Still, the river continues to attract manatees, and during winter months the mammals frequently wander upstream in odd juxtaposition to human industrial labors.

One million cubic yards. That's the volume of sediment that engineers say has amassed on the riverbed. Piled atop a football field, the resulting cake would soar nearly 40 stories into the sky. It's more than enough to fill the NationsBank Tower.

Daunting, to say the least. And come time to describe it -- really describe it -- the nomenclature of science falls by the wayside. "Uh, it's mucky material," ventures Jerry Scarborough, the Army Corps project manager for the Miami River. Offers Lundy Clarke, a member of the Miami River Coordinating Committee, a coalition of public and private interests: "It's very fine dirt, nasty dirt!"

The sediments also have some extra-crunchy surprises. This past year the City of Miami Public Works Department dredged a portion of Wagner Creek, a river tributary that runs out to Allapattah. James Kay, the department's deputy director, recites an inventory of the debris his workmen pulled out of the canal: "Shopping carts, furniture, appliances, construction debris of all kinds! Couches, mattresses, bedsprings, refrigerators." He predicts the same variety of goodies is buried in the river's sediments. Plus, he adds, "You might find one or two cars."

There's nothing environmentally improper about dredging contaminated sediments -- it's legal and it happens all the time. In fact, shipping-terminal operators along the river have, at various times, received permission to spot-dredge around their businesses and to dispose of the material at landfills, all in accordance with environmental laws. It's the enormous volume of the stuff filling the 5.5-mile navigable length of the Miami River that causes nightmares. "Cost becomes the barrier," explains DERM's Susan Markley.

The most efficient way to eliminate the problem would be to dig the sediments off the bottom using so-called clamshell dredges -- essentially extra-large buckets that scoop a VW Bug's-worth at a time -- deposit the material on barges, drag it out to sea, and dump it. Cost: between $20 million and $25 million, to be paid primarily by the federal government, according to the Corps' Jerry Scarborough. Problem is, the sediments' toxicity would violate the EPA's open-ocean-dumping regulations.

The EPA could grant a waiver, and for months Corps officials have asked for the criteria by which the agency would evaluate such a request. But in a Catch-22 of sorts, the EPA has refused to delineate the terms of the review until the request is submitted. This impasse has caused no small amount of tension between the agencies, and has driven at least one bureaucrat to violence: During an argument at an interagency meeting this past October, an engineer from the Corps leaped out of his seat, announced that he was fed up with the "bullshit," and threw his pencil in the general direction of an EPA section chief who was sitting across the table. As the rest of the group watched in embarrassed silence, the projectile hit the table and rolled off.

In any event, it appears unlikely that the Corps will request a waiver, or that the EPA would grant one. "It would be the first time that anyone was knowingly placing known toxic materials in the ocean, and it's our belief that would cause a major outcry," says Howard. "We would have major environmental organizations around the world looking very closely at this particular project. It's a precedent that the EPA is not interested in pursuing." In other words, a waiver would engender legal challenges and questions of environmental ethics that would tie up the dredging project for years.

Adds Jerry Scarborough of the Army Corps: "The Corps of Engineers is not prepared to seek a waiver."

Among the other options under review, federal officials have considered putting the dredged sediments in polypropylene-and-polyester bags and dropping them in the ocean. But these loaded sacks -- or "burritos," as Corps district commander Col. Terry Rice calls them -- have not always been successful in experiments using noncontaminated fill: During a small demonstration project this past year, two out of three bags burst during deployment. But that's the least of the Corps' concerns. "We have not abandoned that idea completely," clarifies Scarborough. "But it's looking very, very doubtful as a viable alternative, because the EPA is still looking at it as contaminated material even if it's in the bag. The EPA won't accept that."

In light of the waiver stalemate, the Corps has also evaluated the possibility of on-land disposal, which would involve hauling dredged sediment, either by barge or truck, to an area large enough to spread out the million cubic yards for drying, like a colossal cow chip. The material would then be either left in place or carted to a landfill. The Corps' first choice was a site on Virginia Key, which offered two advantages: It was already publicly owned and thus wouldn't require purchasing; and it was accessible by barge, an easier method of transportation since carting by road would require approximately 56,000 dumptrucks, a convoy that would stretch from Miami to Key West.

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.

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."

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.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Miami Concert Tickets

Around The Web

Loading...