WEST PALM BEACH — Environmentalists on Monday challenged a project to dredge, widen and deepen Miami's port, saying the plans threaten water quality, coral reefs and marine life.
The petition was filed on the cut-off day for contesting the project whose backers insist could be an economic boon once a widening of the Panama Canal is finished and brings larger freighters north.
The financial merits, however, are far more uncertain than the ecological damage, according to opponents, which include petition filers Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, the Tropical Audubon Society and Dan Kipnis, an environmental advocate and charter boat captain.
"Our beautiful Biscayne Bay, known for its abundance of sea life and its pristine water quality, will be subjected to years of blasting and dredging which will foul the waters and damage ecosystems," said Alexis Segal, executive director of Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper. "And there is no consensus that the project will yield the economic results promised, but the burdens on taxpayers and the environment are sure things."
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection said the petition was being reviewed. A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott, who supports the dredging project and reallocated money to help pay for it, said she couldn't comment on the petition.
The petition delays — at least temporarily — the DEP's ability to give the Army Corps of Engineers a final permit to begin the dredging, expected next year.
Miami's harbor is adjacent to Biscayne Bay. The waters are home to manatees, dolphins, sea turtles and whales and draw threatened and endangered birds. They're also bountiful fishing sites, with shrimp, stone crabs, lobsters, snapper and grouper among other catches.
Opponents of the dredging say it could affect all such sea life. And mindful the project is being billed as a creator of jobs in a state that desperately needs them, the petitioners say it could threaten tourism, Florida's most important industry.
"Biscayne Bay and our beaches are world-renown destinations, enjoyed by locals and tourists alike and are essential economic drivers in our community," said Laura Reynolds, executive director of Tropical Audubon Society. "This project would be a huge step backward for us."
The port plan calls for moving coral that is expected to be directly impacted by work there. The plan also calls for seeding additional sea grasses to make up for those that are damaged.
American ports are competing for business expected to result from the Panama Canal's widening, which is slated to be completed in 2014. A number are undergoing projects similar to Miami's to accommodate the supersized cargo ships expected to sail through Panama once the canal widening is complete.