The Race To Dig Deeper Ports For Bigger Cargo Ships Many environmental concerns are starting to surface as East Coast cities plan to dredge their ports — like in Miami, where engineers would drill for two years to deepen Biscayne Bay's limestone bottom. But like many cities, Miami wants business from new cargo ships from the Panama Canal.

The Race To Dig Deeper Ports For Bigger Cargo Ships

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Seaports up and down the Atlantic Coast are engaged in a race. In 2014, when expansion of the Panama Canal is complete, a new generation of super large cargo ships will begin calling on the East Coast. Miami, Savannah, New York and other cities are vying for the new business and the race is to deepen their ports and expand their facilities to accommodate these new ships.

But as NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami, some of the cities are running into significant challenges.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In Miami, dredging is a hot topic. Plans are underway to deepen the port to 50 feet. Some see it as a great business opportunity. To others, it's a threat to the environment. The CEO of Miami's port, Bill Johnson, is one of those who's excited.

BILL JOHNSON: We are the only port south of Norfolk, Virginia, the only port south of Virginia that has full approval from the U.S. Congress to go to that depth. It is the game changer.

ALLEN: After 2014 when expansion of the Panama Canal is complete, ports on the gulf and the East Coast will see more so-called post-Panamax vessels: ships that carry two or three times the load of standard freighters. Miami expects to be ready if it gets the green light to begin dredging its port, but it recently hit a snag.

Environmental groups concerned about how the dredging would affect Biscayne Bay filed a petition with state regulators that, for now, has put the project on hold.

DAN KIPNIS: We're going to lose the bait. We won't survive it.

ALLEN: Dan Kipnis is a former charter boat captain, now an environmental activist who's long worked on Biscayne Bay. He grew up here on nearby Palm Island and was active in efforts in the '70s and '80s to restore the health of the bay. Today, the water is cleaner than in decades past and the bay is a busy place.

Along with the cargo ships, it's one of the world's busiest ports for cruise ships. There are also sail boats, kayaks and jet skis and Kipnis says excellent fishing.

KIPNIS: I will catch you groupers that weigh 12 pounds and hog snappers and Spanish mackerel and it's just amazing the amount of life we've got here, forgetting crabs and shrimp and all that.

ALLEN: Kipnis has joined with Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper and the Tropical Audubon Society in asking Florida to make sure the port dredging project won't damage the bay.

In most ports, dredging means digging and pumping mud, sand and other material from the bottom of a river or a bay, but in Miami, the bottom of Biscayne Bay isn't mud, but limestone. To make the shipping channel wider and deeper, the Army Corps of Engineers wants to conduct nearly two years of underwater blasting.

Kipnis is worried about the amount of sediment the dredging will put into the bay's crystal clear water.

KIPNIS: If you lift all the silt up year in and year out for two years and get it in suspension, you're going to kill the grass beds. When you kill the grass beds, there's no filtration. There's nothing to hold the sediment that's there down any more.

JOHNSON: So we're not about killing manatees. We're not about polluting the bay. We're about doing things that are right and working to ensure that it's done right.

ALLEN: At a recent port presentation, CEO Bill Johnson said he's willing to work with environmental groups and make sure the dredging is done in a way that addresses their concerns.

Miami is not the only city where port dredging plans are controversial. In Georgia, a plan to dredge Savannah's port has riled up both environmentalists and politicians. Environmental groups are concerned about some of the same sediment issues raised in Miami.

Regulators in South Carolina, just across the Savannah River, at first moved to block the dredging, but then South Carolina governor Nikki Haley intervened. In part because of her help, Georgia was able to negotiate a deal with South Carolina regulators that allows the dredging to go forward, but some in the state felt that Haley was unfairly helping the competition.

South Carolina is working to expand Charleston and its other ports to accommodate the new post-Panamax ships. At a news conference, Haley said there will be enough business for ports in both states.

GOVERNOR NIKKI HALEY: Those Panamax ships are coming through Charleston and it is going to be so vibrant and so strong that the overflow is going to go to Jasper and Jasper is going to be a great port. Without question, the ports are the best thing we've got going. It's an opportunity waiting to happen.

ALLEN: That's the message you can hear in New Orleans, Baltimore and other ports along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. So far, only one port, Norfolk, is deep enough to accommodate the new super large ships.

By 2014, a handful of other cities hope to be ready, but there's a lot of work to be done before then. In New York, the port is deep enough, but there's another problem. It's the Bayonne Bridge, which is currently too low to allow the new container-laden ships to pass. To fix that, the Port Authority is planning to raise the bridge by 64 feet, a job that will take more than $1 billion and five years to complete.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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