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Permit for port draws suit over sea grass

Published July 20, 2006

To get state permission to destroy 12 acres of sea grass in Tampa Bay, the officials who run Port Manatee promised they would not use their new shipping berths until they had completely made up for the damage.

Seven years later, the new sea grass the port planted is still not a complete success. But state officials announced this month they will let the port start using the new shipping berths anyway.

On Wednesday the ManaSota-88 environmental group and the port's original environmental consultant on the dredging project joined forces to file a legal challenge to the decision by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Allowing the port to go back on its promise "will have the effect of impairing, polluting, or otherwise injuring" the state's precious natural resources, according to the legal challenge filed with the Department of Administrative Hearings by John Thomas, a St. Petersburg attorney for ManaSota-88; and former port consultant Roy "Robin" Lewis.

Sea grass beds provide a habitat for small fish, shrimp and crabs. They feed manatees, filter impurities in the water and stabilize the bay bottom's sands.

In the 1950s and '60s, dredging created land for development around the bay but wiped out much of its sea grass, hurting commercial and recreational fishing. Polluted runoff killed even more sea grass. By the early '90s, the bay had lost 80 percent of its sea grass, more than anywhere else in Florida. Restoration efforts have had only mixed success.

In 1998, port officials proposed to dredge the bay bottom to add a 40-foot-deep turning basin to the 400-foot-wide channel connected to the bay's main shipping channel. They also wanted to widen the spot where the channels connect and create two berths for big ships.

Because dredging 88 acres of bay bottom would wipe out about 12 acres of sea grass, port officials promised to scoop up those beds and transplant them to areas of the bay where sea grass was nonexistent.

State scientists questioned whether that would work because sea grass was not growing there naturally. Still, DEP officials said there was controversy even within their own agency over approving the project, though the port's promise to fix the sea grass first won them over.

After the port project had run into trouble, a state sea grass expert with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission wrote in an e-mail to Lewis that the whole project had been a bad idea but the state approved it because of "a process run by wishful thinking, money and politics."

When port officials wrote a glowing report that made the transplanting sound like a success, Lewis resigned in protest and became an ardent critic of the port.

Port executive director David McDonald said last year that forcing the port to keep waiting to use its new berths would be a hardship because "we need these new facilities to take care of our expanded business, and the companies we have contracts with are ready to move in."

DEP officials were sympathetic.

[Last modified July 20, 2006, 01:51:07]

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