For years, Deep Dredge proponents have promised that the $220 million project wouldn't kill off Biscayne Bay wildlife. Coral would be removed from harm's way, they claimed, and water quality would be closely monitored.
Like the massive dredge barges themselves, however, those promises appear to be full of crap.
State inspectors released a study Monday showing that silt from the dredge has already killed many corals and had "profound" and "long-lasting" ecological effects on Biscayne Bay.
The report appears to confirm environmentalists' worst nightmares.
In 2011, a coalition of activists filed a lawsuit against the 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.
"Once we inflict enormous environmental damage on the bay, we can't go back," local boat captain Dan Kipnis said at the time. "This could be a permanent setback to the bay as we know it."
Kipnis and others weren't able to stop the dredge, of course, but they were able to obtain more money for mitigation and greater monitoring.
Palythoa caribaeorum, a normally robust coral, can be seen dying under dredge silt.
Last month, however, Kipnis and his coalition (which includes marine biologist Colin Foord, Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, and the Tropical Audubon Society) filed a formal notice of their intent to sue the corps and its contractor once again -- this time for improperly monitoring the dredge and for damaging the bay with its dirty plumes.
They 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.
The day the group filed its motion, the dredge ships disappeared from Biscayne Bay. The corps claimed that its main ship was struck by lightning and that the stoppage has nothing to do with damage from the dredge.
Either way, Florida's Department of Environmental Protection used the pause in dredging to investigate. This Monday, they sent a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers outlining numerous violations.
A colony of Colpophyllia natans. The silt has killed the coral, turning blackish purple.
Silt from the dredge had spread far beyond the confines of the project. In some locations -- including at least one artificial reef -- corals were buried beneath up to 14 centimeters of dredge detritus.
Even corals that weren't buried were at risk because of how dirty the water had become from the dredge.
"During this diving inspection, significant impacts to hardbottom beyond those that were permitted were observed," the letter said.
In the accompanying report, photos show the damage already done by the dredge: corals broken by boulders errantly dropped by dredge ships; corals covered in bacteria or buried under silt; once-vibrant ecosystems now reduced to rubble.
Dredge silt has turned the Biscayne Bay seafloor into a moonscape.
"The corps and [its contractor's] continued manipulation, evasion, and total disregard for conditions defined in our settlement agreement and the DEP permit requirements is an affront to the citizens of South Florida," Kipnis said of the study. "ACOE's blatant bullying and suppression of calls by concerned citizens and environmental organizations for transparency and compliance during PortMiami's Deep Dredge project borders on the criminal."
Foord, an expert in corals, said he was shocked by the DEP's photos.
"It is, in fact, far worse than we thought," he said. "State-protected sea fan gorgonians are also being smothered in silt and then subsequently overgrown with cyanobacteria."
A measuring stick shows the accumulation of dredge silt atop once-thriving coral reefs.
Most troubling of all, Foord said, is that summer is corals reproductive period. Instead of a sea swimming with coral larvae, however, the DEP found that dredge silt had killed them all.
"The bigger question now is just how far away this silt extends north of the channel," Foord said. "It is possible that there will be no larval recruitment for miles around the channel.
"The ACOE should be held accountable," he said. "They need to immediately rectify the methods they are using to dredge, abide by the coral monitoring reports, and adhere to the conditions of their permit. If anyone else besides the federal government was causing this much impact to Florida's coral reefs, that individual or group would be facing huge fines and potentially imprisonment. This in conjunction with the fact they simply dumped the legally required 'mitigation reef' boulders directly onto the natural existing coral is a shameful (easily avoidable) act that demonstrates the low levels of professional/scientific conduct the project is operating on.
A Montastraea cavernosa colony broken into pieces by an improperly dumped dredge boulder.
The DEP study gives the Army Corps two weeks to respond. It ends on a halfway hopeful note: "A fast response to this issue may minimize long-lasting impacts."
Kipnis has a bleaker prognosis.
"If the corps and [its contractor] can stall, hem and haw long enough, they will get the project done," he said. "We will be left holding the bag, as Miami-Dade County ultimately is responsible for the damages and remediation as per the contact agreement between PortMiami and the corps.
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"Something is definitely wrong with this system."