Captain Courageous

Miami's notoriously dirty, crime-ridden river is flowing a little cleaner these days thanks to Coast Guard Capt. Dave Miller

While posted in Boston from 1982 to 1985, Miller got a taste of what was to come in South Florida. "The fishermen up there are largely Portuguese," he remembers. "They were [members of] families who had been in it for generations, real independent. They didn't want to be told about carrying life rafts and having fire pumps that worked. But commercial fishing has a casualty rate two to three times higher than the average industry. And Congress said do something about it. In the end they came around. I even had boat captains admit we were right. But it wasn't easy."

Miller arrived in Miami during Memorial Day weekend 1995. He recalls the first time he inspected the river. "I thought I was back in the 1900s," he says. "Here were all these wooden-hull coastal freighters. Then you came to a small shipping terminal and you would see a sign nailed to a tree. 'This boat bound for Port-au-Prince on this date. Accepting cargo.' Everywhere else this is done over computers, but here we were in the last century. It was amazing." Miller found it colorful, "but I also saw that these boats were dangerous for their own crews and that the river had pollution problems, in part because of them."

Garbage littered the banks and oil created iridescent patterns on the water. Beneath the surface were countless tons of toxic silt. He also saw boats tied three abreast that almost blocked the channel. Other vessels were half-submerged and abandoned. Some small vessels hung strings of Christmas lights across their wheelhouses in place of the navigational lamps required by law. Others were piled high with bicycles and lawn furniture -- much of it bought from thieves. Tugboat operators called the commercial portion of the river east of 27th Avenue "Mecca," after the teeming Muslim holy city.

Miller knew he had a big job ahead. "I also knew I wasn't the kind of guy who likes to get up in front of people and give a lot of orders," he says. "I prefer to get things done with a more low-key approach." On the Miami River that would be tricky.

Fran Bohnsack wanted to help Miller succeed. She works in an office overlooking the terminal of Miami Ship Services on the river's southern bank near downtown. (In that space, known during World War II as Miami Shipyards, workmen assembled PT 109 gunboats like the one John F. Kennedy commanded for the U.S. Navy.)

Bohnsack hasn't spent her career working on the water like Miller. Not even close. She was a professor of literature, first at the University of Miami, and later at Nova University. In 1988 and 1990 she ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature as a liberal Democrat. In 1992 she agreed to take over the office of the conservative and crusty Marine Group. The organization includes shipping agents, tugboat operators, and owners of shipyards. Those firms were smarting from that grand jury report citing criminal activity and pollution on the river -- and also calling for a government-run body to oversee and clean up the waterway. The river users would pay fees to the authority.

Though no such body was ever started, the proposal itself caused concern. "The idea of an authority really worried [river business owners]," Bohnsack says. The Marine Group had already created a lobbying office. (Today its nineteen full members pay as much as $17,000 apiece per year to support it.) In Bohnsack they had a woman with the brains and the political experience to compensate for their tarnished, tough-guy image. While acknowledging the need for new tactics, they were still fiercely independent. Says one river insider: "These guys still don't want to hear anything that affects the way they've always done business. Sometimes they sound like little boys."

When Miller took over, Bohnsack invited him to address a meeting of the Marine Group at the Miami City Club. Miller had toured the river with his boss, Admiral Roger Rufe, who then called it "pure chaos." When Miller quoted Rufe, the businessmen were riled. "The moment I said it, I saw them move up to the edge of their chairs," remembers Miller. "They didn't like it. They got vocal. I could see right then what I was getting into."

After that meeting some group members concluded that -- though Miller would make trouble -- the river community would remain largely unchanged. They were wrong. Miller and his men at the Marine Safety Office, located on Terminal Island, started issuing citations to small and large boat operators for safety and pollution violations. Some ships were detained in port. The community paid attention. In September 1995 Miller invited everyone with an interest in the river to meet at a Coast Guard office. "I expected about fifteen people to show up, but about seventy actually came," he remembers. "It was pretty wild. Everybody had something to say, to complain about, and they didn't mince words."

Several more mass meetings were held during the next year to discuss issues like abandoned vessels and "rafting" -- blocking the channel by tying vessels together. Miller spoke of the need to involve private firms and public agencies in solving the problems.

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