Miami River dredging gets final green light from county commission
By Paola Iuspa
After almost three decades of planning, the dredging of the Miami River is scheduled for summer 2002 and could take up to four years.
The work should increase the depth to 15 feet from13 and will allow vessels to traverse the river any time instead of waiting for high tides. The river will then be deep enough for ships to carry cargo at capacity. Many freighters now are loaded at 70% of capacity because the river's depth is not enough to keep them afloat if they carry a heavier load, said Richard Bunnell, co-chairman of the Miami River Commission's dredging subcommittee.
The Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners, local sponsors of a deal that requires federal, state and county participation, agreed Tuesday to sign a contract with the US Army Corps of Engineers, which will head the dredging project. Before carrying out the contract, commissioners want to be informed on how removed sediment would be handled.
Mr. Bunnell said some commissioners wanted to hear about possible problems related to odor, traffic and birds, which may be attracted to the removed sediment. The dredging should reduce the flow of sediment into Biscayne Bay, but will temporarily stir up sand and debris.
"The Army Corps, I and many others will be there to explain how things are going to be handled," he said before the commission met.
County commissioners agreed to later pitch in 5% of the estimated $80 million cost. A $16 million contingency fund and an estimated $10 million for a site to store the sediment are included.
While the corps will pay for 80%, the state and City of Miami will pay 10% each. Officials of the Florida Navigational District have said they would reimburse the county and Miami up to 50% of their expenses, said Mr. Bunnell, who also serves as treasurer of the Miami River Marine Group.
The Florida Legislature last month allocated $2.5 million for the dredging. That allocation will become effective once Gov. Jeb Bush signs the bill.
Army Corps officials said they expect to have a bid package out by early March to select the contractor to dredge the 5.5-mile river and dispose of the sediment.
"Bids are expected to be back by the end of June 2002 to start the dredging by July," said Mr. Bunnel, who runs a marine-construction company. "The Army Corps has been working on this project since 1976."
The plan calls for removing more than 500,000 cubic yards of accumulated sediment from the river bottom, said Bob Parks, chairman of the Miami River Commission, created in 1998 by the state to head efforts to clean up the waters.
"In fact, the river was last dredged in 1933," said Jerry Scarborough, the Army Corps of Engineers' Miami River dredging project officer. "The river, a federal navigable channel, is in great need of" buildup removal, which is restricting shipping.
The sediments are contaminated primarily from storm-water drainage systems that empty into the body from more than 69 square miles of urban and industrialized areas. The sediments are contaminated with heavy metals, chemicals, pesticides, sewage and petroleum products, experts said.
"The federal government prohibited any dumping in the river 50 years ago," Mr. Bunnell said.
Carlos Espinosa, assistant director of the county's Department of Environmental Resources Management, said every day freight traffic "re-suspends" the sediment and moves it to the mouth of the river. "The contaminants migrate to Biscayne Bay."
Although it is not known yet how the contractor will transport the sediment to a 10-acre site across from the Miami Jai-Alai Fronton, 3500 NW 37th Ave., Mr. Espinosa said corps officials are looking to select a company equipped with the latest technology.
"They said they will not go for the lowest bid but for the contractor that offers the most innovative technology in handling and moving the sediment," Mr. Espinosa said.
David Miller, managing director of the Miami River Commission, said the sediment would rest on that site temporarily until someone buys it for other uses.
County leaders have been holding community meetings in Melrose to talk about safety issues with neighbors, who say they are anxious about having a pile of dirt in their neighborhood.
"People are concerned about the traffic this project will generate and the smell," said Maria Elena Levaunt, district coordinator with the office of county Commissioner Jimmy Morales. "Corps officials said they have dredged other rivers before and no odors came out of the sediment."
The dredging also will have an impact on the $4 billion shipping industry, Mr. Bunnell said. He said large vessels now have to wait for the twice-daily high tide at varying times to be able to traverse the canal. The river, he said, is heavily traversed by freighters that carry rice, beans and flowers. He said most are headed to or returning from the Caribbean and Latin America.
Dredging will allow the average freighter to increase cargo capacity from 160 to 240 containers, river experts said. In 1998, more than 4,000 cargo vessels called on enterprises along the Miami River.
Dredging efforts in 1990 received a setback after the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that the debris, normally disposed of in the ocean, did not meet ocean disposal criteria and needed to be disposed of on land.
In 1993, the Army Corps estimated the cost of dredging at $12 million and the upland disposal cost at up to $105 million. That year, the government ruled disposal expenses were the full responsibility of the non-federal sponsors. Mr. Miller said local governments could not raise the needed money.