The Dredge Report: A Port, Reefs, and A Righteous Lawsuit in Broward County, FL

Posted by on October 5, 2017

By Troy Epstein*

My home county of Broward County, Florida, is a lot like its largest seaport, Port Everglades. Just as the port warmly embraces ships and products hailing from all corners of the globe, the county is the proud home of diverse human beings who themselves, or whose families, hail from near and far. Just as the port is an important economic turbine for the county—generating total economic activity valued at more than $28 billion and impacting more than 224,000 jobs[1]—Broward County plays an analogous role for the state. It is home to roughly 150 corporate headquarters and corporate headquarters are vital to the state’s economy[2]. The port’s continued economic vitality depends on existing facilities maintenance and innovating for the future, and the county likewise must care for present-day institutions and plan for the economy of tomorrow.

Broward County is also a lot like its coral reefs, reefs that are part of the more than 220-mile long barrier reef system known as the Florida Reef Tract.[3] Both embody diversity, with coral reefs being some of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth and supporting more species per unit area than any other marine environment[4]. And both are economically valuable, with coral reefs potentially providing goods and services worth $375 billion per year[5]. The destruction of coral reefs would be a blow to Floridians and humans the world over who reap benefits from these reefs, and the state of Florida cannot afford to lose Broward County.

All of this means that when some sort of standoff develops between these mirrors of Broward County, the Port and the reefs, we should not be surprised if the people of the area feel a little conflicted or worried. A recently proposed Port Everglades dredging project, one that follows the implementation of a controversial PortMiami dredging project, has some feeling precisely these ways.[6] Luckily, a lawsuit filed by Miami Waterkeeper, the Center for Biological Diversity, Florida Wildlife Federation, and the Diving Equipment and Marketing Association has helped to bring about a slow down in this ordeal—one that is a positive development irrespective of what the future ultimately holds.[7]

The completed PortMiami project was the first act in the story of the Port Everglades lawsuit. The physical dredging of PortMiami occurred between November 2013 and September 2015.[8] The purpose of this “Deep Dredge” Project was to make it so that PortMiami could accommodate the newest generation of freighters[9]. The project was expected to create an estimated 30,000 new jobs for Florida families and to increase PortMiami’s annual economic impact to more than $34 billion.[10] Today, the project is complete and PortMiami can service cargo vessels up to 22 containers wide and up to 9 containers above deck and eleven containers below.[11]

The PortMiami project was, unfortunately, not so great for coral reefs. A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concluded that as much as 81 percent of the reef near the dredging site had been buried in sediment.[12] A more recent study published in November 2016 confirmed this damage, stating that sediment spread across an area about 14 times bigger than what was allowed under the US Army Corps of Engineers’ permit.[13] Sediment deposition on coral reefs can significantly impact coral health by blocking light, directly smothering coral, and triggering increases in macroalgae.[14] To continue the county/reefs analogy above, sediment deposition of this sort is like lifting a colossal bucket of dirt into a county and dumping the bucket squarely on its major city.

Environmentalists and environmental lawyers did not take this harm lightly. The project was met with a legal challenge spearheaded by Miami Waterkeeper (MWK), a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to protecting South Florida’s watershed[15]. Though the challenge, and the associated MWK campaigning bore some real fruit, it was clearly not enough to prevent serious damage to the reefs around PortMiami. The benefits secured from the challenge were primarily after-the-fact benefits, such as catalyzing NOAA’s rescue of threatened corals from these reefs and pushing entities to release reports and letters cataloguing the harm.[16]

With the cautionary tale of the PortMiami project in mind, MWK and its co-plaintiffs brought the Port Everglades lawsuit, bringing suit under the citizen suit provisions of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.[17] MWK and its co-plaintiffs were looking to prevent damage to coral reefs before the dredging project got underway.[18] In their complaint, they sought declaratory and injunctive relief, alleging that the Corps’ environmental analysis for the project was based on the same inaccurate assumptions used for the PortMiami project and that the Corps had failed to fully account for the environmental impacts of the proposed project.[19] After filing the lawsuit, the executive director of MWK noted, “our goal is not to stop the dredging project entirely; we’re just trying to ensure that the reef is protected while the dredging is undertaken.”[20]

Just this January, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would go back to square one and conduct new environmental studies before starting the project.[21] The plaintiffs in the Port Everglades lawsuit, in return, agreed to put a temporary hold on their suit and declared victory.[22] The Port Everglades dredging project, originally planned to begin in 2017, is now expected to be on hold until at least 2019.[23] Following this announcement, the executive director of Port Everglades said, “We are committed…to allow[ing] this project to come to fruition while minimizing the impact on the corals.”[24]

Whether this postponement sprung entirely from the litigation facing the Corps or the litigation was just one factor among many, the Port Everglades lawsuit was important. The people of Broward County are now able to continue viewing Port Everglades as a reflection of the county. They are also able to continue thinking of the coral reefs in this way. Each a model of diversity and positive economic impact, and each valuable to preserve.

The lawsuit brought about a pause, a pause needed to allow space for more analysis, critical thinking, and compromise. Rushing full speed ahead into a project right on the heels of a just completed injurious project would not have given this issue the kind of consideration it deserves. Immediately demanding nothing short of a total scrapping of the project would not have either.

In discovering the Port Everglades lawsuit, I would like to think I have found one last analogy for my home county. Broward County is not just like its port or its coral reefs, but also a lot like the Port Everglades lawsuit—driven by extraordinary concern for thoughtfulness and devoted to the pursuit of justice. For this analogy to remain apt, the people of Broward County must continue to keep an eye on the project and continue to guard against impropriety.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

*Troy Epstein is a Junior Editor on MJEAL. He can be reached at troyeps@umich.edu.

[1] PORT EVERGLADES, http://www.porteverglades.net/about-us/ (last visited Feb. 26, 2017).

[2] BROWARD CTY. GOV’T, TARGETED INDUSTRIES, http://www.broward.org/EconDev/WhyBroward/Pages/TargetedIndustries.aspx#t6 (last visited Feb. 26, 2017).

[3] Miami Waterkeeper v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng’rs, No. 0:16-cv-61975-WPD, (S.D. Fla. Aug. 17, 2016).

[4] NAT’L OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMIN., CORALS, http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/kits/corals/coral07_importance.html.

[5] Id.

[6] Legal Actions, MIAMI WATERKEEPER, http://www.miamiwaterkeeper.org/legal_actions (last visited Feb. 26, 2017).

[7] Id.

[8] Miami Waterkeeper v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng’rs, No. 0:16-cv-61975-WPD, at 21 (S.D. Fla. Aug. 17, 2016).

[9] Lizette Alvarez, Dredging of Miami Port Badly Damaged Coral Reef, Study Finds, N.Y. TIMES (May 1, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/02/us/dredging-of-miami-port-badly-damaged-coral-reef-study-finds.html?_r=0.

[10] Gov. Scott Tours PortMiami Deep Dredge Project, OFFICE OF GOVERNOR OF FLORIDA RICK SCOTT, http://www.flgov.com/gov-scott-tours-portmiami-deep-dredge-project/.

[11] Deep Dredge, PORTMIAMI, http://www.miamidade.gov/portmiami/deep-dredge.asp.

[12] Alvarez, supra note 9.

[13] Jenny Staletovich, Mud from PortMiami Dredge Spurred Coral Die-off, Study Finds, MIAMI HERALD (Nov. 21, 2016), http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/environment/article116312178.html.

[14] USGS PACIFIC CORAL REEFS, CIRCULATION AND SEDIMENT, NUTRIENT, CONTAMINANT, AND LARVAL DYNAMICS ON REEFS,  https://coralreefs.wr.usgs.gov/sediment.html.

[15] About Us, MIAMI WATERKEEPER, http://www.miamiwaterkeeper.org/about.

[16] Legal Actions, supra note 6.

[17] Id.

[18] Miami Waterkeeper v. U.S. Army Corps of Eng’rs, No. 0:16-cv-61975-WPD, at 3 (S.D. Fla. Aug. 17, 2016).

[19] Id.

[20] Kate Stein, Lawsuit Filed Over Coral Concerns At Port Everglades, WLRN (Aug. 18, 2016), http://wlrn.org/post/lawsuit-filed-over-coral-concerns-port-everglades.

[21] Corps Commits to Conduct New Environmental Studies, EARTHJUSTICE, http://earthjustice.org/news/press/2017/corps-commits-to-conduct-new-environmental-studies-before-port-everglades-expansion-dredging-begins (last visited Feb. 26, 2017).

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Kate Stein, After Lawsuit, Additional Studies Planned For Port Everglades Coral, WLRN (Jan. 25, 2017), http://wlrn.org/post/after-lawsuit-additional-studies-planned-port-everglades-coral.

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