A $205 million Port Miami channel expansion that left a swath of dead coral and led to a legal battle over damage is facing more controversy.
A new study published last week concluded U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contractors vastly underestimated the amount of coral killed. Meanwhile, the Miami U.S. Attorney's Office last week charged the lead biologist on the project who oversaw coral monitoring with lying about working part-time for an outside consultant hired by the Corps.
As the agency prepares to expand Port Everglades and re-dredge Port Miami after finding parts of the channel still too narrow, the developments are likely to draw even more scrutiny to the work and the ailing health of the bay.
"There's far-reaching effects and I think that this study really highlighted exactly how deadly these projects can be if they're not properly controlled," said Miami Waterkeeper executive director Rachel Silverstein.
Over the last decade, more than 21 square-miles of seagrass have died, including the 2016 die-off of meadows in the Tuttle Basin. A cluster of dead dolphins also turned up in 2015. Five were found within six square miles in the north end of the bay, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to declare the first dolphin mortality event on record in Biscayne Bay.
Whether they're related remains unclear, but the significant events should serve as an alarm for the bay's health, Silverstein said.
A Corps spokeswoman said the paper shows the difficulty in "teasing apart" the causes behind coral deaths and that agency officials are reviewing the paper.
"Looking into the future, it is reasonable to expect that increasing ocean acidification and warming will make interpretations of project-related data even more challenging," the agency said in a statement.
Consultant Bill Precht, a director at Dial Cordy, the firm hired by the Corps to assess the damage, disputed the findings. He said they were inaccurate and failed to factor in damage from Hurricane Matthew when it passed in 2016. The storm mostly missed Miami-Dade County but still produced some tropical storm force winds.
This study, published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, is the second to argue the Corps miscalculated the damage when it scooped up the bay bottom to deepen the channel to 50 feet. A 2016 report by the National Marine Fisheries Service and Universitiy of Miami scientists also concluded the Corps low-balled the number, but used limited data.
The study, which re-examined all the data collected by the Corps during the 16-month project, found more than a half million corals were killed when plumes of sediment left many buried. Dial Cordy reported that just six corals were killed by the dredge work.
The Corps' consultants had blamed the widespread coral die-off on stony coral disease, a mysterious new ailment first detected off Virginia Key in 2014. But this latest review found that many of the coral that died were not suspectible to the disease. It also found they were concentrated near the dredge.
"The notion that only six corals died as a result of dredging is actually sort of absurd," said University of Miami coral biologist and study co-author Andrew Baker.
In addition to the study, the U.S. Attorney's Office last week charged Terri Jordan-Sellers, a Corps biologist since 2001, with lying to Department of Defense investigators about doing work for a Corps consultant. The company was not named in a press release or court papers. Corps officials said in an email they don't know whether the relationship affected the dredge work. When asked if the agency was re-examining the work, a spokeswoman said officials were cooperating with the U.S. Attorney's office, which did not respond to a request for comment.
Sellers, who has pleaded not guilty, could not be reached for comment. She could face up to five years in prison, according to the press release.
When state wildlife officials, who issued the Corps a permit to dredge near threatened and protected coral, calculate how much damage the Corps needs to repair, they will now have to consider this study, Silverstein said. By law, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection must rely on the best available science.
The findings should also be considered when the Corps plans the dredge at Port Everglades, which also sits near the Florida reef tract, the only inshore reef in the U.S.
"They have even more corals than we have around Port Miami, so they have just as much if not more to lose," he said. "We should really take note of this study to realize that the impacts of dredging on corals can be much more significant than originally planned."