On July 26, the St. Johns Riverkeeper filed paperwork to dismiss a state lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers concerning proposed dredging of the river. But Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman assures us the fight is far from over. Instead, the non-profit organization has pulled the state lawsuit to pursue one at the federal level.
The state lawsuit was an attempt to hold the Corps accountable to a more protective environmental resource permit. The current permit, according to Rinaman, offers little protection to the St. Johns River and its tributaries.
However, within 90 days of the lawsuit being filed, the Corps submitted documentation stating that it is not subject to state laws.
In 2006, the Corps and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) reached an agreement that granted the Corps sovereign immunity, which exempts the government from lawsuits. Thus, unless it opts to waive its own supremacy, the Corps is exempt from complying with state regulations and unaccountable for violations.
“The Corps made it very clear they have sovereign immunity and [the state permit is] more of a courtesy, as opposed to a true permit,” said Rinaman. “Even a win at the state challenge is not a win if it’s not an enforceable permit.”
So the Riverkeeper dropped the state lawsuit and went for a federal one.
The permit allows for dredging 13 miles of the St. Johns River from its current 40-foot depth to 47 feet, removing an estimated 18 million tons of sediment from the riverbed and potentially blasting into the bedrock to allow for the passage of larger, Post-Panamax cargo ships into JaxPort.
Environmentalists have questioned the efficacy of cutting short the Corps’ environmental impact study of the proposed dredging by 14 months due to an Executive Order called “We Can’t Wait” issued by President Barack Obama.
Beyond the time crunch, some wondered whether there were conflicts of interest in the study.
The non-federal sponsor was JaxPort, the entity that stands to profit the most from the project. Additionally, the study was co-authored by several researchers at Taylor Engineering, a firm dedicated to water-related engineering projects that received a $12 million contract from the Corps 14 months after the study was published.
Concerning spikes in salinity, one of the Riverkeeper’s major concerns, the study concludes, “ … ecological resources in the project area are likely to be more affected by inter-annual variability associated with regional rainfall patterns (drought, storm events), potential sea level rise, and possible water withdrawals than induced salinity changes associated with deepening.”
Rinaman disputes this conclusion, stating the dredging would allow for an increased flow of saltwater into the river. Like many local environmentalists, she believes this increased salinity would damage wetlands that function to naturally filter pollutants and also serve as nurseries for many aquatic species.
The Corps’ study further states, “Uncertainty exists about the magnitude of both the effect of deepening on salinity and the ecological response to changes in salinity.”
The plan fails to mitigate the effects of the project — something Rinaman says can be accomplished by breaching the Rodman Dam.
Construction on the dam, another Corps project, began in 1935 as part of the Cross Florida Barge Canal. But after decades of funding shortfalls and scale-backs, President Richard M. Nixon, who deemed the canal the biggest unfinished public works project in history, killed the venture in 1971.
The Rodman still remains — blocking the flow of the Ocklawaha River, historically the largest tributary to the St. Johns and about 20 springs. A Florida environmental report found the dam has caused low oxygen concentrations, soil toxins, decreased wildlife populations and the elimination of floodplain habitats.
Breaching the dam, according to Rinaman, would benefit the Ocklawaha and the St. Johns by allowing the flow of fresh water into the river and improving the quality of adjacent wetlands.
The Corps study stated that breaching the dam “may provide ecological benefits to the St. Johns River system; however, the economic and social effects of the project are complex and controversial.”
According to the study, JaxPort did not support the breach, so it was removed as an option on the dredging project.
Rinaman believes this lack of mitigation and failure to properly research the effects of the dredging project will lead to careless environmental damage, such as that now faced in Miami.
A similar dredging project began in Miami Beach in 2013 to expand entry into Port Miami. Less than two years into the project, the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded the Corps “greatly exceeded” the levels of environmental damage to South Florida’s coral reef systems, predicted in its environmental impact study of the project.
The federal agency further concluded the dredging killed corals protected under the Endangered Species Act, by blanketing the reefs in sediment.
Making matters worse for protection of the St. Johns is a recent decision by the state’s Environmental Regulations Commission to revise standards on the amount of chemicals released into Florida waters. The commission approved the new regulations by a vote of 3-2.
The commission added 39 chemicals to its regulation list and revised allowable amounts for most of the 43 toxins already on the list. The revisions include increasing the acceptable amounts of 19 carcinogens in state water. Many of the new standards far exceed the recommended levels established by the EPA.
Although the addition of dozens of new chemicals to the regulation list is a positive, says Rinaman, the increase of already monitored chemicals puts Floridians at risk.
Notably, Governor Rick Scott vacated two seats on the commission — local governments and environmental community — more than a year ago. A letter sent from the St. Johns Riverkeeper and approximately 50 other state organizations called for Scott to fill the seats before the vote, according to Rinaman. Instead, the seats were left empty and the vote was moved up several months.
In a letter to Gina McCarthy, the administrator of the EPA, dated July 26, several Congressional leaders from Florida expressed their concerns over the decision. The letter notes an insufficient amount of time was given for review and comment, and cites the absence of the two commission members.
The letter was signed by Sen. Bill Nelson and Reps. Ted Deutch, Frederica Wilson, Gwen Graham, Lois Frankel, Patrick Murphy, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Alcee Hastings and Alan Grayson.
Companies will be subjected to the new contaminant levels when their respective permits are renewed. The next major permit renewal is in 2017, by Georgia-Pacific.
Jacksonville, the last major city on the St. Johns’ northerly flow to the ocean, could see the biggest impact from increased toxic chemicals in the river.
Rinaman says her organization doesn’t currently have any plans to legally challenge the decision, but expects it’s only a matter of time before somebody does.
For now, the St. Johns Riverkeeper will focus its energy on its federal lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers. Rinaman says they are prepared for what could be a prolonged and costly legal process.
Correction: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated that Taylor Engineering received a “grant” from the Army Corps of Engineers and failed to qualify the assertion that some perceived conflicts of interest with the Corps.’ environmental impact study.