The deep dredge could be in very deep trouble. Miami's most controversial public works project has been under the microscope in recent months as environmentalists have complained the dredge is killing precious coral colonies.
This morning, however, those same environmentalists are filing a request for an emergency injunction that could bring the $200 million dredge to a grinding halt.
"The damage is continuing 24/7 since they've been dredging 24/7," said Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper. "We can't afford to wait any longer."
The request for an injunction has been a long time coming.
Three years ago, Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper and other activists filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the government agency overseeing the project. The environmentalists argued that not enough was being done to protect Biscayne Bay wildlife from years of dredging and underwater dynamiting.
The dredge went ahead anyway, but environmentalists were able to obtain more money for mitigation and greater monitoring.
In July, the environmentalists filed a formal notice of their intent to sue the corps and its contractor once again, arguing that the corps hadn't lived up to its promises.
The activists provided New Times with evidence that silt from the Deep Dredge had spread across Biscayne Bay, burying coral under a deadly layer of dirt, sand, and bacteria.
Much of that damage has since been confirmed by both the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Dredge silt has turned the Biscayne Bay seafloor into a moonscape.
Now the environmentalists are following through on their threat to sue. Yesterday, Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, Miami-Dade Reef Guard Association, Tropical Audubon Society, and retired boat captain Dan Kipnis jointly filed a formal lawsuit in federal court.
The suit claims that the Army Corps of Engineers is violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing dredge sediment to smother endangered as many as 250 species of endangered coral.
The activists are also filing a request for an emergency injunction this morning. The request will ensure the case is heard as soon as possible to prevent further environmental damage, says Silverstein, noting that dredge ships recently moved into Biscayne Bay.
Silverstein says she and her fellow activists gave the corps time to clean up its act, but they haven't seen any signs that their concerns are being taken seriously.
Port officials say deepening Government Cut is crucial for the local economy.
"Since we filed [an intent to sue in July], all that's happened is we've got more and more evidence - even from government groups themselves-- about how bad the destruction has been," she said. "We have no option now but to demand that the Army corps stop dredging until it can fix its ways."
Sue Jackson, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, said she couldn't speculate about what might happen in court. However, she said the corps was doing its best to balance its duty to carry out the project with environmental concerns.
"Some environmental impact is unavoidable, but there has to be balance if we're to grow as a nation and remain vital in the global marketplace," Jackson said in an email to New Times. "This is a complex challenge, economically and environmentally. With nearly a century-long history, Miami Harbor's Government Cut was federally constructed specifically to create a transportation hub (ship-to-rail/road) for importing and exporting goods, which supported local and regional economies and national economic goals. If you research the port's history, you'll see that it has always been Miami's economic engine. The environment is also important to us, and we continue our mitigation efforts."
Jackson said that delays in dredging "would have consequences," and that it costs between $50,000 and $100,000 per day to keep dredge ships on the water.
Silverstein countered, however, that the environmentalist groups' intent is not to kill the dredge or cost taxpayers any more money.
"Our goal is not to just stop this project and have it not completed," she said. "Our goal is really to stop the damage and make sure that federal and local laws are being followed."
The lawsuit and emergency injunction request are just the latest salvos in what is shaping up to be a nationwide battle over dredging. Roughly a dozen different ports are hoping to complete similar projects in order to lure the huge "post-Panamax" freight ships that will soon stream through a deepened Panama Canal.
"Our suit is bigger than what is going on in Miami," Silverstein said. "These projects are being planned up and down the east coast, particularly at Port Everglades. We are using Miami as an example of the damage that can be done when proper care isn't taken."
"What's at risk is losing some critical natural resource environments that are very unique to Florida," Silverstein added. "They keep our coastlines safe from storm surges and help with flooding."
A hearing could be held within days. A federal judge will decide whether to impose an injunction -- bringing the dredge to an abrupt and perhaps costly halt -- or let the project proceed.
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"We have mounting eye-witness account and various government agency reports that highlight that the damage going on is even worse than what we predicted," Silverstein said. "It's going to be hard for a judge to ignore."