A month ago, state regulators raised the alarm over silt from the Deep Dredge killing Miami corals. Now the feds are stepping in as well.
According to documents obtained by New Times, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has issued a scathing set of recommendations for saving endangered coral threatened by the dredge project.
"There is clearly sediment impact affecting coral colonies, including [endangered species] Acropora cervicornis and possibly newly-listed corals, in the project area," the report says. "There is also evidence of additional background warm temperature stress in the region. Both these factors are contributing to rapid deterioration in colony condition in the project area."
NOAA spokeswoman Connie Barclay said she could not speak about the document, which appears to be an internal agency report from ongoing negotiations with the Army Corps of Engineers over dredge permits.
The report does more than raise concerns about coral death due to the Deep Dredge, however. It also contains recommendations on how to save endangered species, such as rare staghorn corals.
"Accumulation and resuspension of sediments in the project area will continue to affect extant colonies and designated critical habitat as long as the sediments are present," the report says. "Therefore, emergency relocation of living staghorn colonies should be undertaken immediately and further mitigation (e.g., translocation of additional coral species, CH mitigation) considered."
The NOAA report also recommends rescuing "any other species of corals that appear to be salvageable" and transferring them to a coral nursery.
Barclay said she couldn't discuss specific NOAA concerns about the Deep Dredge, but the report appears to be an indication that complaints by local scientists and environmentalists have gained some traction.
"We are always concerned about endangered species or marine animals and how they are going to be impacted by certain activities," she added. "That's our job. That's what we are supposed to do."
The report comes as a small but significant boost for local environmentalists and scientists, who have been warning for years that the Deep Dredge will destroy local marine wildlife.
Port of Miami officials, on the other hand, insist that it will create jobs, boost the economy, and can be carried out responsibly without permanently damaging the local environment.
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 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."
Now the NOAA report, coupled with criticism from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, appears to support the activists' concerns.
"We hate to be vindicated this way," says Dan Kipnis, a retired Biscayne Bay boat captain who was one of the plaintiffs to sue the Army Corps of Engineers. "Shit, for me to be right, the Corps had to lay waste to a large swath of south Florida's reef line. I wish I was wrong about this!"
Nonetheless, the NOAA report is "a very big deal," says Rachel Silverstein, executive director of Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, another environmental group against the dredge.
"This is confirmation of what we've been saying all along," she says. "It's bittersweet for us because it confirms that our reefs have really been devastated because of the project. That's not easy to hear but hopefully it does spur the Corps to action to actually do something to help the corals before it's too late."
In the next few months, the Deep Dredge will move into Biscayne Bay as Fisherman's Channel south of the port is also deepened. Barclay promises that NOAA will work with the Corps to make sure endangered corals are protected.
But Silverstein and Kipnis remain concerned.
"We have yet to see a response from the Corps, but if [NOAA's recommendations] aren't carried out we, are in the position to follow through and file a lawsuit," Silverstein says. "We feel that our corals are in danger."
Kipnis says that the most frustrating thing is that this whole scenario was easily foreseeable.
"I feel sure that ACOE, PortMiami, FDEP, the Governors office, Chamber of Commerce and all the other supporters of Deep Dredge knew the consequences that dredging at the port would produce," he says.
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"Christ, we have been dredging there for the past 100 years with the same results," Kipnis adds. "You would have to be a blind man not to know what this was going to do to the environment."