Port expansion causes environmental debate

A ship docked at the Port of Miami on October 13, 2011. The port, which is the eleventh largest cargo container port in the country, is going to expand and connect to other highways. Marlena Skrobe//Photo Editor

An upcoming dredging of the port of Miami’s seafloor could present massive risks to the marine environment and to the pristine waters that define South Florida’s tourism, lifestyle and appeal.
By 2014, the port will be deep enough to accommodate some of the largest shipping vessels to ever cross the Panama Canal.
“The port of Miami expansion project has been a long time coming,” said Daniel Suman, a University of Miami professor of marine affairs and policy. “We’ve always been concerned with the issue.”
The average vessel currently operating out of Miami’s port is 4,500 TEUs, according to the Port of Miami’s website. TEU stands for 20-foot equivalent unit and is a measurement used to denote the capacity available on a cargo ship. To safely and effectively navigate a larger cargo ship like a post-Panamax vessel, Miami’s port needs deeper water than the depth available at most U.S. East Coast ports.
The arrival of larger ships, which could reach up to about 12,000 TEUs, called for the need to dredge the port to a depth of -50 feet; the port currently has a depth of -42 feet.
“The ad hoc call was a clear indication of the infrastructure and operations required to welcome this size of vessel, which will become the new minimum industry standard once the Panama Canal enlargement is completed in 2014,” said Jean-Philippe Thenoz, vice president of North American lines at CMA CGM, a container shipping group.
So what does this mean for the sea life inhabiting the port of Miami?
In order to remain a major player in the east coast’s shipping business, Miami’s port must be deepened to accommodate the enlarged standard of freighter passing through the Panama Canal. This expansive work will have environmental impacts.
Those against the dredging have expressed their concerns about the inevitable damage to South Florida’s coral reefs.
“I think it’s sad that so many people are willing to destroy the reef for the sake of a long shot. I don’t see the benefits outweighing the costs in this situation,” said Rachel Pausch, a sophomore majoring in marine biology, biology and geology.
An article published in The New York Times on Sept. 3 explains that “about 7 acres of coral is expected to be directly affected by the blasts, and the Army Corps of Engineers will be required to transplant much of it to a trough between two reefs.”
Another worry for those opposed to the dredging is the effects on seagrass.
“I’m most concerned about the damage to the seagrass,” Suman said. “The expansion site is adjacent to Virginia Key, a wildlife conservatory for seagrass and manatees, and there is always the possibility of damage to such a protected site.”
So just how much damage can the area expect?
“If the transplants go well, we could have healthy, beautiful reefs. But if they go bad, the trademark Florida reefs face a huge risk of survival,” said junior Parker Crawford, who is majoring in marine affairs and is an executive board officer of UM’s SCUBA club.
Opposition forces need to prove a violation of the Endangered Species Act to even deter the progress.
“If endangered staghorn or elkhorn corals were found to be in direct impact areas of the dredging, that would be one strong argument to at least slow or alter the project,” Suman said.