Feds Won't Turn Over Records Showing How PortMiami Dredging Affected Corals

After a massive dredging project at PortMiami damaged an estimated half-million coral, environmental groups sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to halt a similar project at Port Everglades. As a result, the Army Corps agreed to hold off on the work until it could reassess the potential environmental impact.

Almost two years later, the results of those surveys have not been publicly released. Last May, the Miami Waterkeeper — a local environmental watchdog — submitted a public-records request for documents concerning both dredging projects, which the Army Corps has yet to turn over. This month, the organization filed a federal lawsuit asking a judge to order the release of the records.

"We’re fighting to make sure the same mistakes don't happen again, and in order to do that, we have to understand what happened in the past that led to the damage," says Rachel Silverstein, executive director of the Miami Waterkeeper.

Media representatives from the Army Corps' Jacksonville division did not respond to an email from New Times asking why the records have not been turned over. So far, the Army Corps has not responded in court.

Florida's coral reef, which has been under siege by warming ocean temperatures, pollution, and disease outbreaks, is the only barrier reef in the continental United States and an $8.5 billion asset to the state. In recent years, dredging projects in South Florida have pitted environmental activists against the cruise and cargo industries, which have argued that attracting commerce is more important than protecting that reef.

Although environmentalists feared damage to coral colonies near PortMiami when dredging began in 2013, many of their concerns were ignored. As it turns out, they were right to be worried: At the end of the two-year project, up to 81 percent of coral in the area was buried in sediment, according to a 2016 report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

After the PortMiami project was questioned, the Army Corps agreed to review if similar damage could be avoided during the upcoming Port Everglades expansion. Miami Waterkeepers' public-records request seeks documents about lessons learned from PortMiami, as well as coral surveys that were performed near Port Everglades.

"We have our own thoughts about mistakes that were made and what should be done next time, but we want to understand what the Corps thinks," Silverstein says.

It's been seven months since the organization submitted its initial request for documents. In July, after missing the FOIA deadline, the Army Corps said it was backed up with records requests from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Miami Waterkeeper says the federal agency has not responded to emails since mid-November. It's unclear if the government shutdown will affect the lawsuit or the Army Corps' ability to respond to the request.

As of now, the Port Everglades dredging project isn't projected to start until 2020. 
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jessica Lipscomb is the former news editor of Miami New Times.