A Coalition of Nonprofit, Local Business Groups Plan Legal Action Against U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to Protect Threatened Reefs

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A Coalition of Nonprofit, Local Business Groups Plan Legal Action Against U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to Protect Threatened Reefs

Groups will challenge failure to prevent damage to corals in upcoming Fort Lauderdale dredging project following disastrous project in Miami

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - A coalition of environmental and SCUBA organizations joined together today to demand that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provide mandatory, common-sense protections for nearby reefs during an upcoming, proposed dredging project to expand Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. This is particularly urgent after widespread reef destruction during the dredging of the Port of Miami (PortMiami) last year.

The dredging is part of an effort by the Corps to expand ports along the East Coast to accommodate larger ships. During the dredging of PortMiami, the Army Corps illegally injured and killed Endangered Species Act-listed staghorn corals and buried alive more than 200 football fields of reef habitat. The damage stemmed from the Corps’ failure to collect and use accurate, up-to-date information or adequately account for potential impacts to nearby reefs.

Despite this, the Corps still refuses to correct mistakes and learn lessons stemming from PortMiami, and has asked Congress for authorization for the Port Everglades dredging based on inaccurate assumptions and surveys.

The Florida reef tract is the only coastal barrier reef in the continental United States. It is a national treasure that hosts diversity, protects our coast, and supports local economies. However, it has already declined by more than 80 percent since the 1970s, and the last few years of bleaching, dredging, and disease have put this reef tract into crisis.

There are many threats facing our precious Florida reefs, bringing them to the brink of collapse. “Many of these threats are global and difficult to control at a local level,” said Rachel Silverstein, executive director and waterkeeper of Miami Waterkeeper, “but this dredging plan is an action that we can easily control to ensure that coral reefs are protected. Despite our attempts to improve this plan over the last year, the Corps has not changed a single word of their upcoming dredging plan based on what happened in Miami.”

The Port Everglades dredging in Fort Lauderdale will deepen the outer entrance channel in Port Everglades by 10 feet, widen the channel by about 300 feet, and extend the channel by about 2,000 feet. The Corps is seeking permission to blast rock for up to 900 days and dump about 5.47 million cubic yards of dredged material offshore, including the fine-grained sediment that can smother and harm coral. In Miami, this same sediment buried corals alive, depriving them of access to light and food, causing death, and hindering reproduction.

In Miami, the Corps relied on an out-of-date survey that underestimated the number of Endangered Species Act-listed corals in the project area by at least 10 times. The Corps incorrectly predicted that the fine-grained sediment stirred up by dredging would only have minor impacts to corals out less than 500 feet away from the port.

But, when the dredging project began, sediment covered reefs out to more than 3,000 feet away, smothering coral and causing partial coral death on up to 93 percent of corals in areas near dredging. In a report released last month by the National Marine Fisheries Service, federal scientists concluded that dredging was responsible for the extensive harm to reefs. The report contradicted the Corps’ claims that natural disease had caused mortality to coral in the area.

“The Corps is still relying on the same old, flawed survey that vastly underestimated the numbers of coral in Miami and the same incorrect assumptions about how far the sediment will travel,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “That’s illogical, and we are asking that they stop and rethink their assumptions.”

But, the Corps has repeatedly refused to heed pleas from conservationists and recreational and ecotourism groups, and even from other government agencies, recommending that they update their plans for the Port Everglades dredging to learn lessons from the disaster in PortMiami. Miami Waterkeeper, Center for Biological Diversity, the Florida Wildlife Federation, and Sea Experience, working with Earthjustice, are now left with no option but to take action to save what’s left of these reefs.

In the letter sent to the Corps today, the groups demand that the agency comply with the Endangered Species Act and seek a second opinion from federal wildlife experts. If the Corps does not comply with the law, the coalition plans to sue the agency.

“The Corps owes it to Florida’s economy and future generations to learn from its mistakes,” said Brettny Hardy, an attorney at Earthjustice. “If the federal agencies won’t take action to protect these reefs, we will.”

The coalition also sent a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is charged with enforcing the Endangered Species Act and protecting coral in Florida. The groups ask that the Fisheries Service demand that the Corps implement better protections for coral.

What’s at Stake: The Value of South Florida’s Reef System

The Florida reef tract is the only living, near-shore barrier coral reef system in the continental United States. Coral reef systems provide crucial shelter, food and breeding sites for countless marine plants and animals, including species that are commercially and recreationally valuable. They also protect coastal residents because they buffer storm damage.

The reefs are economically vital to South Florida. A 2001 study found that coral reef-related expenditures generated more than $2 billion in sales in Broward County alone, resulting in $1 billion in income and 36,000 jobs to Broward County.

Unfortunately, Florida’s reefs are in dire trouble. Due to pervasive threats like climate change, the National Marine Fisheries Service has listed seven Caribbean species of coral as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. At least six of those species are present near Port Everglades.

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