Carlos Lopez-Cantera is having a helluva week in Tallahassee. On Monday, the Miami-based state rep requested an amendment to Florida law so that the City of Miami wouldn't have to pay taxes on the new Marlins Stadium parking garages -- never mind that such an exemption is probably unconstitutional. On the same day, Lopez-Cantera pulled another fast one. He introduced a small amendment into HB 373 that could push through the controversial Port of Miami Deep Dredge project. Yesterday, the House overwhelmingly passed the bill.
"We spent a lot of time and energy in last year's legislative session to secure the funding for the Deep Dredge," Lopez-Cantera tells Riptide. "More delays could kill this project. We're not going to let that loss happen."
Environmentalists are furious. They argue that the amended bill is an attempt to steamroll over their objections and circumvent court hearings set for this summer.
"This speeds everything up," says Dan Kipnis, a local boat captain who believes the Deep Dredge will scar Biscayne Bay. "They've had 13 years to prepare for this, but they can't let us have until August to prepare our argument?"
Kipnis and several other environmentalist groups sued to stop the deep dredge in November after Florida's Department of Environmental Protection had issued the project a permit. A state judge gave the environmentalists until August to prepare their case.
Now, however, Lopez-Cantera's amendment could dramatically expedite the process, and take the final decision out of the judge's hands altogether.
If the Senate passes similar legislation, HB 373 will require court proceedings on environmental resource permits "within 30 days after a party files a motion for a summary hearing, regardless of whether the parties agree to the summary proceeding."
"The administrative law judge's decision shall be in the form of a recommended order and does not constitute final agency action of the department," the bill continues. "The department shall issue the final order within 45 working days after receipt of the administrative law judge's recommended order."
If passed, the law will take effect on July 1. So instead of a court debate beginning in August, the judge will only have until August 1 to make a decision. Even then, the decision will now only be a "recommended order" that the DEP will be able to ignore.
In other words, thanks to Lopez-Cantera's amendment, expect the Deep Dredge to begin this summer.
Lopez-Cantera says that environmentalists like Kipnis and The Tropical Audubon Society should have opposed the project earlier, before the permit was approved. "Lots of global corporations are bringing billions of dollars in capital investment to the port, so it doesn't make sense to delay this thing until August just for a hearing when these groups had plenty of time," he says, adding that objections at this point are just "stall tactics."
Kipnis says he's been raising concerns for years, they just weren't headed until he filed suit.
Lopez-Cantera admits that he discussed the idea for an amendment with Port Miami director Bill Johnson, who supports it. He says the bill was largely drafted by the county attorney's office and is also backed by Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who urged lawmakers to "speed up" the dredge during a visit to Tallahassee this week.
Kipnis and other environmentalists point out that the bill could have far-reaching consequences. Not only does it green-light Miami's deep dredge -- which they warn will permanently damage Biscayne Bay's fragile ecosystem -- it would appear to apply to all deepwater port permits.
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Jacksonville, Port Everglades, and several other ports are considering deep dredging in a bid to receive the super-sized freight ships that will soon pass through the Panama Canal. HB 373 could expedite those projects as well.
After their legal victory last month, environmentalists are now floored but what they consider a sucker-punch.
"I don't know what to do," Kipnis says. "I don't have anything to give senators or politicians to stop this. And if you don't have anything to give, you're not going to get anything in return. That's how Tallahassee works. I've got nothing to give except a clean bay, and obviously that's not good enough for them."