Judge Rules St. Johns River Dredging Can Continue

On May 26, U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard granted a summary judgment in favor of the Corps and JaxPort, the port authority of Jacksonville, Fla., that dismissed a lawsuit brought in April 2017 by St. Johns Riverkeeper. The lawsuit sought to have the Corps do additional studies on the impacts of dredging the St. Johns River, whose mouth forms part of the Jacksonville harbor.

The Corps’ 2015 report approved a finding that the dredging of 13 miles (later adjusted to 11 miles) of the St. Johns River to deepen the channel from 40 to 47 feet was economically justified and environmentally acceptable. JaxPort says the dredging is necessary to accommodate larger ships and compete with other ports. The dredging of the 11-mile stretch is broken up into three contracts, labeled A, B and C. California-based dredging and marine construction firm The Dutra Group has completed its work on Contract A. Great Lakes Dredge & Dock, headquartered in Oak Brook, Ill., is currently working on Contract B.

Group Sought SEIS

The plaintiffs claimed deepening the channel would impact wetlands and increase the river’s salinity, harming ecosystems. After Hurricane Irma caused historic flooding in Jacksonville, the group argued the deeper channel would make future flooding even more destructive. St. Johns Riverkeeper asked the judge to order the Corps to do a supplemental environmental impact study.

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The judge found the Corps’ planning for the dredging met the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, and while the flooding from Irma was historic, it was not unforeseeable. The judge said high water levels even more severe than Irma were included in the Corps’ modeling. She conceded future hurricanes might well bring flooding but said the assessment of flood risk was the job of elected officials, not the courts.

St. Johns Riverkeeper’s Lisa Rinaman said in a statement to a local news outlet, “We are obviously very disappointed but will continue our efforts to fortify the St. Johns from the harmful impacts of the deep dredge. This ruling does nothing to change the fact the dredging will cause more saltwater intrusion, destroy or damage critical wetlands and submerged vegetation and increase water levels and storm surge in the river.”

Following the judge’s ruling, JaxPort said, “The Jacksonville Harbor Deepening Project is Northeast Florida’s single biggest opportunity to grow jobs and create economic prosperity for our community. The project—which was studied for more than a decade and is supported with significant state and federal funding—is critical to the economic vitality of our region and ensures that Jacksonville’s port will continue to create quality employment for future generations.”