Citing reef concerns, Planning Board nixes federal plan to dump dredge waste at offshore sites
By The Star Staff
The Puerto Rico Planning Board has objected to the federal government’s plan to dispose of millions of cubic yards of dredge waste in five ocean sites around Puerto Rico because it did not have enough safeguards to prevent harm to coral reefs, the Center for Biological Diversity revealed over the weekend.
The Planning Board did not find the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to be sufficient for preventing harm to coral reefs, which play a role in preserving fisheries and protecting communities and infrastructure from severe storm surges.
The Planning Board’s resolution, approved on Sept. 14 but made public late last week, summarizes the views of different organizations regarding the federal plan. The State Historic Preservation Office said it will not have an impact on historical properties. Pedro Saade Llorens, a lawyer representing different environmental groups, urged the Planning Board to reject the federal government’s determination. The group CORALations and the Center for Biological Diversity also warned against the dumping of toxic dredge soils in the ocean and the impact on coral reefs.
The EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had applied to the board for a “certification of consistency,” which would have confirmed that their plan was in line with the Puerto Rico Coastal Management Program. The federal plan would allow the ocean dumping of waste created by dredging the San Juan Bay shipping channel, which would give large ships access to a new liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal.
“This request to dispose of the contaminated material from the San Juan Bay around Puerto Rico, without consulting with the communities that have opposed the dredging, is contrary to the vision expressed by the EPA to pay more attention to environmental justice communities,” said Federico Cintrón Moscoso, director of the organization El Puente-Enlace Latino de Acción Climática, in a statement issued last Friday. “Before this plan goes any further, we demand that all activities related to this dredging comply with an environmental impact statement in which the communities and affected groups have a chance to participate.”
The San Juan Bay Dredging Project involves dredging and disposing of more than 2 million cubic yards of sediment. Dumping the waste at sea could contaminate ocean ecosystems with heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium and mercury, and other harmful chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls, El Puente-Enlace Latino de Acción Climática noted.
Community and conservation groups — El Puente, CORALations and the Center for Biological Diversity — filed a federal suit in August over the Army Corps’ plans to expand the shipping channel. The lawsuit challenges the Corps’ failure to prepare an environmental impact statement analyzing the effects gigantic tankers and the new LNG terminal will have on local communities, corals and wildlife. The suit also contests the Corps’ plan to dispose of some dredged material in the Condado Lagoon nature reserve, which is an important habitat for manatees.
“Puerto Rico’s Planning Board deserves kudos for denying the EPA’s dirty dumping plan,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in the statement. “Dumping waste onto corals in the ocean doubles the destruction from dredging projects. The San Juan dredging project saddles Puerto Rico with a dependence on fossil fuels and harm to communities and eco-tourism, and ocean disposal magnifies that damage.”
Sediment plumes leaking from barges carrying dredge waste often smother corals and other bottom-dwelling wildlife, the groups said. Reefs along the north coast of San Juan near the proposed dumping sites provide habitat for seven species of Endangered Species Act-listed corals, including elkhorn, staghorn and pillar corals. Some of those areas are federally designated critical habitat for elkhorn and staghorn corals as well as proposed critical habitat for the other species.
Coral reefs — which are extremely biodiverse — also support several other marine species, providing habitat for more than 25% of all life in the ocean.