Riverkeeper files motion to delay harbor deepening project

Riverkeeper files motion to delay harbor deepening project
Indicative of what could come down the St. Johns River if the channel were deepened, the COSCO Development, a Post-Panamax ship, moves past downtown Savannah, displaying the magnitude of its size in relation to nearby building. (Photo by Georgia Ports Authority/Stephen Morton Photography)

With affidavits from Lisa Rinaman, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, and four concerned individuals, the Riverkeeper filed a motion for preliminary injunction Dec. 4 against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Jacksonville Port Authority (JaxPort) to delay the first phase of the harbor deepening project.

Joining the Riverkeeper in the fight against the project were Dr. Jeremy Stalker, an associate professor of Biology and Marine Science at Jacksonville University; Charles Lembcke, a property owner in Monclair and a member of the St. Johns Riverkeeper; Brooks Busey, owner of Sadler Point Marina, and Seth Pajcic, local attorney, also both members of the St. Johns Riverkeeper.

Of primary concern is the new 11-mile plan which has not been formally evaluated by the Army Corps of Engineers, according to the Riverkeeper, who contends environmental impacts and the economic feasibility of the project must be fully assessed prior to authorization of federal funding and before dredging should be allowed to proceed.

“This new 11-mile plan simply does not exist according to the Army Corps,” stated Rinaman. “Federal law requires JaxPort’s new plan to be thoroughly studied and evaluated, including the recalculation of the Benefit Cost Ration (BCR), yet nothing has been done by the Corps to fulfill this requirement.”

The original project called for a 13-mile channel to be dredged to 47 feet, deep enough to accommodate larger Post-Panamax ships, such as supertankers and large modern container and passenger ships.

Irma weighs in

The September 11, 2017 hurricane should be viewed as a wake-up call for Jacksonville when it comes to potential storm surges on the St. Johns River, according to Stalker.

“The flooding caused by Irma represents the best information now available for use in modeling the potential flooding impacts of activities that affect the St. Johns River and its floodplain in Jacksonville and surrounding areas,” Stalker said in his affidavit. “Irma flooding represents the most recent and most detailed information available related to flooding and should be taken into account in any modeling intended to gauge the potential extent of flooding increases from dredging the St. Johns River.”

Lembcke, Busey and Pajcic all expressed concerns about flooding from storm surge, predicted in a study by the Army Corps that dredging could result in up to a foot in storm surge and tide levels in some areas. The three men cited serious damage to property, both residential and business, as a result of Hurricane Irma and stated flooding increased by dredging the river will have the potential to impact their homes and businesses.

“In the wake of Hurricane Irma, the urgency and importance of assessing the potential flooding impacts from dredging is even more apparent,” explained Rinaman. “Failure to evaluate these impacts when we know that the dredging will likely increase storm surge and tide levels only puts our community and our river at greater risk and makes us more vulnerable in the future.”

Stalker’s affidavit notes the geographical/topographical makeup of Jacksonville as conducive to flooding even under normal storm circumstances.

“Jacksonville and its surrounding areas are largely flat with a low gradient and are subject to flooding at times of high water,” stated Stalker. “Some areas of Jacksonville have experienced repeated flooding simply from high tides or tides associated with normal storm events. Flooding of these areas will be aggravated by the increased tide and storm surge heights caused by the dredging.”

Two-and-a-half months after Irma swept through Jacksonville, the Army Corps announced Nov. 30 it would re-open the National Environmental Policy Act evaluation process to “consider whether the recent flooding conditions in the vicinity of the Jacksonville Harbor Navigation Project following the 2017 nor’easter and Hurricane Irma constitute significant new circumstances or information relevant to environmental concern sand bearing on the Jacksonville Harbor Navigation Project or its impacts.” The Riverkeeper contends the flood assessment should be completed before the project begins, citing federal law that requires the Army Corps to address all potential impacts, including mitigation, and to incorporate the anticipated costs into the final project Benefit Cost Ratio.

“The fact that flooding impacts and a new 11-mile project have not even been evaluated further validates our concerns and reinforces the urgent need to fully vet the Deep Dredge before it’s too late to turn back,” said Rinaman.

By Kate A. Hallock
Resident Community News

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