Two years ago, environmentalists desperately tried to derail the Deep Dredge. They claimed the $2 billion plan to deepen the Port of Miami would kill wildlife in Biscayne Bay, so they sued to stop it. But when a bevy of state agencies lined up against them -- threatening dredge opponents with outrageous legal fees -- the environmentalists were forced to cut a deal and walk away. The dredge went ahead.
For a year and a half, these environmentalists focused on other issues. But when fleets of ships finally began scraping the bottom of the bay in December, activists went on alert. Like superheroes called out of their secret lairs, some have gone to incredible lengths to document the damage the dredge is doing.
"There is something rotten going on here," says Dan Kipnis, a retired Biscayne Bay boat captain. "Something really rotten."
Kipnis began hearing from fishing buddies about the dredge in February. They described giant plumes of silt spreading for miles out to sea, making it difficult to fish.
Kipnis had been one of those to sue to stop the dredge in the first place and had fought hard to require the Army Corps of Engineers -- which is in charge of the project -- to post dredge data online. When he checked them, however, he was stunned.
"Man, did it look like a clean operation," he says. "The numbers looked terrific."
Capt. Dan Kipnis says he caught contractors for the Army Corps of Engineers taking bogus water readings in Biscayne Bay
Courtesy of Capt. Dan Kipnis
So he did some sleuthing. Google images showed giant, milky clouds spreading from the dredge ships like Alka-Seltzer dropped into a glass of water. Kipnis used astronomical data and the Pythagorean theorem to calculate the exact time of the photos and then compared them to the immaculate dredge data. It simply didn't add up.
Kipnis considered using a specially equipped drone to take his own water samples from shore -- a tactic taken by buddies of his to stop dredging in Broward County.
Instead, on June 25, he hired a sea plane to fly him over the dredge. He watched as hopper ships seeped dredge sludge like massive, metallic slugs slinking across the sea.
Finally, on July 7, Kipnis took a boat out to the dredge. He watched as a private contractor took turbidity readings -- nowhere near the dredge site.
"We caught their tester in his boat taking readings outside the plume, in clean water," Kipnis says. So the boat captain took his own water samples. They came back twice the legal limit -- high enough to get the entire dredge shut down. "They are gaming the system!" Kipnis claims.
He's not the only one who says the corps isn't being honest. Fishermen complain they can't catch anything in mucky water. Dive companies say clients are complaining about poor visibility. And scientists say silt from the dredge is coating coral reefs.
"We're seeing coral buried under a centimeter of silt," marine biologist Colin Foord says. "This [dredging] is supposed to go on for another year. Some of the coral may not survive."
On July 17, Kipnis, Foord, Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, and the Tropical Audubon Society filed formal notice of their intent to sue the corps and its contractor for improperly monitoring the dredge and for damaging the bay with its dirty plumes.
The ruckus they are raising may be working. The morning the environmentalists filed their motion, the dredge ships disappeared from Biscayne Bay.
The corps says its main ship was struck by lightning, and that the stoppage has nothing to do with damage from the dredge.
But Kipnis claims the corps was cleaning up its act before divers from Florida's Department of Environmental Protection could inspect the site last week.
The boat captain's efforts to catch the corps cheating may sound like a convoluted spy novel, but Kipnis says his message is simple.
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"If we kill what's growing there in the bay," he says, "it might never come back."