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Environmentalists press judge to halt construction on Puerto Rico port expansion

The San Juan dredging project could pose risks to coral reefs, manatees and Spanish forts, according to environmental groups, if construction begins as soon as July.

WASHINGTON (CN) — A plan to expand a shipping port in Puerto Rico to accommodate large oil and natural gas tankers is under the microscope after environmental activists claimed the project, set to begin in July, was fast-tracked while the island recovered from devastating hurricanes.

Lawyers from the Center for Biological Diversity argued Monday in Washington before U.S. District Judge Carl J. Nichols, a Donald Trump appointee, that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took advantage of the devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria to move forward on a project in the San Juan Port that they said would adversely affect the local coral and manatee populations, in addition to increased air and noise pollution in low-income communities.

Catherine Kilduff, an attorney for the environmental group, pointed out that the environmental assessment the Corps conducted on the San Juan dredging project was released in August 2018, just under a year after Irma and Maria hit the island in September.

She said that in addition to the small window for residents to express their opinions on the project, the evaluation was inadequate, in part because it “omitted overburdened communities while they were reeling from the hurricanes,” referring to areas on the West side of the San Juan Bay that have historically dealt with higher levels of pollution.

Kilduff and other environmental activists that are parties to the case say that the government did not do its due diligence while studying the possible impacts of the project. They allege that the Corps violated the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act by conducting unsubstantial evaluations and accepting the possible environmental costs rather than considering a limited version of the project.

The government’s lawyers disagreed with Kilduff’s characterization of the environmental assessment as rushed and inadequate, pointing to years of working with the public and relevant expert agencies such as the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in every step of the process.

“The public participation here was adequate,” said Christopher Hair, an attorney with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. “It was not fast-tracked, it took years.”

At issue is whether the dredging – the excavation of underwater material – will cause an increase in sediment around local coral reefs and any other reefs that the sediment could drift out to, which could smother the corals and impede their ability to feed, grow and reproduce. The environmental groups pointed to a similar dredging project in the Port of Miami that caused the death of thousands, if not millions, of corals around the southern coast of Florida, and others after the Gulf Stream carried sediment farther into the ocean.

Department of Justice attorney Michelle Spatz dismissed that comparison, explaining to Judge Nichols that the maritime agency had warned the Corps before the Miami project began that construction would pose a risk to the nearby coral reefs. The agency made no such warning during the Corps' consultation regarding the San Juan project.

Activists say the project could also pose potential risks to manatees, either by destroying seagrass in the harbor, a primary food source for the creatures, or increasing ship collisions due to the higher traffic.

Again, Spatz refuted these claims, saying that there is very little seagrass in the bay to begin with, there will be less ship traffic thanks to larger ships coming to port and there are already stringent regulations specifically meant to eliminate the risk of possible collisions with manatees.

According to the plaintiffs, the sediment could cause further erosion near Spanish Colonial-era historical sites, such as the Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Spatz denied this possibility as well, arguing that because the bay is enclosed, the sediment will be contained to the harbor.

With just over a month until the project can start construction, Nichols told the parties that he will come to a judgement quickly on whether to halt construction, remand the assessment back to the Corps or vacate it entirely.

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Categories / Environment, Government, Regional

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