St. Johns Riverkeeper files federal lawsuit over dredging

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The St. Johns Riverkeeper on Friday filed a federal challenge of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental impact statement over the project to deepen the harbor.

The corps' 2015 report approved the impact statement's finding that the dredging of 13 miles of the St. Johns River to deepen the harbor from 40 to 47 feet was economically justified and environmentally acceptable. The Jacksonville Port Authority said the dredging is necessary to accommodate larger ships and compete with other ports.

The Riverkeepers is asking for a review of the corps' findings, claiming the assessment failed to take the required hard look at the environmental consequences of dredging, failed to provide appropriate in-kind mitigation for the environmental damage that will result from the dredging, failed to provide an adequate comprehensive economic analysis to determine the merits of such a massive expenditure of public funds, failed to comply with public participation requirements and failed to supplement the environmental impact statement when relevant new information or circumstances arose.

"We can't afford to roll the dice with the future of the St. Johns.  Once the damage is done, there is no turning back," St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman said. "Unfortunately, the Army Corps has failed to exercise due diligence and provide the public with assurances that our river will be protected."

This is not the first time the Riverkeeper has gone to court to stop the dredging project. Just over a year ago the environmental group filed a petition against the Florida state Department of Environmental Protection, claiming the dredging would have "devastating long-term effects" on the river and several endangered species.

In addition to the legal arguments raised by Riverkeeper, local logistics expert Dale Lewis recently conducted an independent analysis that raises questions about the economic viability of the proposed dredging.

"This recent analysis needs to be taken seriously to make sure we are not pursuing a dredge to nowhere," Rinaman said. "If the deep dredge doesn't make economic sense, why even gamble with the health of our community's greatest natural asset in the first place."

Jaxport said it would have no comment on the latest lawsuit and referred questions to the corps. The corps said it will not comment on pending legal challenges.

The dredging project is estimated to cost $684.2 million and take five to six years to complete.

The Florida Department of Transportation’s has allocated $35.5 million of the $40 million needed for Phase One over the next two years and preliminary work was to begin in 2017. Funding for the rest of the project is pending local, state and federal action.

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