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Apalachicola dredging not stopped

Sen. Bob Graham is "disappointed'' that Congress has failed to kill the 42-year project, an aide says.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Along North Florida's Apalachicola River, the days are getting cooler and the cypress trees are turning russet.

Thousands of Monarch butterflies, hawks and peregrine falcons are moving through as they make their long trip to Central and South America. And in the river's depths, ancient sturgeon fish are migrating to the sea.

Florida's mightiest river is doing what it has done each fall for millions of years.

But in Washington, deal-making during Congress' final weeks threatens the river's future.

Florida lawmakers were unable to persuade Congress to kill a dredging project on the Apalachicola River this year, even though the Army Corps of Engineers officially has admitted the project is "is not economically justified or environmentally defensible."

Florida U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, who pushed to end the dredging this year, was "disappointed" that Congress likely will adjourn without killing the project, said his aide, Kim James.

The dredging project is one of the most expensive public works projects of its kind in the nation.

For 42 years, the Corps of Engineers has been dredging the Apalachicola to make way for a dwindling number of barges that carry fertilizers, fuel, asphalt and other cargo north to tiny ports in Georgia and Alabama.

At Lake Seminole, on the Florida-Georgia border, the Apalachicola connects to the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers, giving cities such as Columbus and Bainbridge in Georgia a route to the Gulf of Mexico.

But barge traffic on the Apalachicola is so limited that the average $3-million annual dredging cost works out to about $30,000 per barge.

Lawmakers from Georgia and Alabama, which represent cities and towns upstream that profit from the dredging, could not agree this year with Florida lawmakers who sought to end it. The three states also are in a legal battle over who gets to use how much water from the river.

Manley Fuller, executive director of the Florida Wildlife Federation, called the dredging "a wasteful project that has outlived its usefulness."

Environmentalists were hopeful that politics would go their way this year, giving Florida a chance to reverse years of environmental damage to the river. The river flows into Apalachicola Bay, home to 90 percent of Florida's yearly oyster harvest.

Huge piles of dredged sand along the river's banks have been killing young fish. Constant tinkering with the river's flow has harmed endangered species. Scientists say the corps' dredging has ruined as much as 25 miles of Apalachicola floodplain -- a quarter of the river's length in Florida. One of the dredging piles, dubbed "Sand Mountain," is as tall as a two-story building. Another would bury 35 football fields under 3 feet of sand, officials say.

Political momentum began to build against the project this year. The corps came out against it, as did Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs, Sen. Graham and U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello.

But in the end, infighting doomed the agreement.

"It's back to the drawing board," said Ted Hoehn, who researches the Apalachicola for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "We've finally got everyone's attention. We're going to be continuing to work with our congressional staffers to find a solution. We'll be back at it next year."

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