Riverkeeper files legal challenge of St. Johns dredging project

By filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, a nonprofit, citizen-supported organization, is determined do all it can to protect the river that flows through the heart of Jacksonville from irrevocable damage due to a proposed dredging project by JAXPORT.

On April 7, the Riverkeeper filed a Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief in federal court against the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) regarding the proposed St. Johns River harbor dredging project, according to Jimmy Orth of Riverside, executive director of the St. Johns Riverkeeper.

In April 2015, the Record of Decision was issued to approve the USACE’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the JAXPORT proposal to dredge 13 miles of the St. Johns River from a depth of 40 feet to 47 feet, finding the plan to be “economically justified” and “environmentally acceptable,” Orth said.

The Riverkeeper’s complaint seeks review of the FEIS under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) citing five failures in the USACE’s proposal: 1) to take a hard look at the environmental consequences of dredging; 2) to provide appropriate in-kind mitigation for the environmental damage that will result from the dredging; 3) to provide adequate comprehensive economic analysis to determine the merits of such a massive expenditure of public funds; 4) to comply with public participation requirements; and 5) to supplement the FEIS when relevant new information or circumstances arose.

“We can’t afford to roll the dice with the future of the St. Johns. Once the damage is done, there is no turning back,” said St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman. “Unfortunately, the Army Corps has failed to exercise due diligence and provide the public with assurances that our river will be protected.”

The Riverkeeper is particularly concerned the mitigation plan is “woefully inadequate,” because it requires no restoration projects or strategies to offset damage incurred from the dredging, said Orth. One big problem is that dredging causes salt water to move further upstream, destroying wetlands, submerged grasses, and trees that provide critical habitat for fisheries as well as pollution filters for the river, he said.

Also, monitoring comprises the vast majority of the mitigation expenditures and is a standard permit condition, not a substitute for true compensatory mitigation, he said, noting that post-project monitoring will not undo damage from an irrevocably altered salinity regime in the St. Johns.

According to Orth, the USACE analysis is flawed and incomplete, significantly underestimating the potential threats to the health of the St. Johns River, because it used two different salinity models for the main stem and tributary analyses. Use of different models for the salinity intrusion makes the evaluation unreliable, he said, adding the USACE’s river channel sedimentation model does not provide necessary information to establish environmental effects for sedimentation.

The adverse impact on endangered species such as manatees, short nose sturgeon, North Atlantic Right Whales and sea turtles from the blasting of bedrock and sedimentation required in the dredging is of particular concern to the Riverkeeper, he said.

Also, federal and regional economic interests have not been demonstrated or verified, as required by Federal Law, according to Orth, who noted that a multi-port analysis assessing competition among regional ports was not conducted. The economic analysis did not follow USACE guidelines, nor were economic methods and assumptions adequately documented, he said.

“Regrettably, the Army Corps of Engineers has underestimated the environmental impacts, done nothing to offset the damage that will occur, and failed to demonstrate a clear economic need, leaving us with no choice but to challenge this project,” said Rinaman, who added that local logistics expert Dale Lewis recently conducted an independent analysis that questions the economic viability of the proposed dredging.

“This recent analysis needs to be taken seriously to make sure we are not pursuing a dredge to nowhere,” said Rinaman. “If the deep dredge doesn’t make economic sense, why even gamble with the health of our community’s greatest natural asset in the first place?”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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