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St. Johns Riverkeeper Says Dredging Project Danger To Environment, Threatens Lawsuit

Peter Haden

The St. Johns Riverkeeper announced Tuesday it plans to sue the Army Corps of Engineers over its proposal to deepen the St. Johns River.

The Army Corps of Engineers says dredging the St. Johns River is a positive economic move for Jacksonville, but St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman says its plan ignores the project’s deep environmental impact.

“They actually cut 14 months off the study process, and so there was a lot of overlapping,” Rinaman said. “So, the engineers and the technical folks didn't get the advantage of having the studies done in a manner where they could learn from each study.”

Rinaman says the river dredging plan ignores dangers to delicate wetlands and endangered animals like the manatee.

Though the Riverkeeper coordinated with the Corps during planning, it’s now warning of a lawsuit over the latest environmental report. The Corps’ deepening project manager Jason Hannah says dredging plans are proceeding regardless.

“We’ve had several meetings with the task force [and] others where we’ve heard that this is the potential,” Hannah said. ”So, it did not come as a surprise to us.”

A river dredging task force convened by previous Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown was dissolved by new Mayor Lenny Curry. Curry says he plans to work with JAXPORT in support of the dredging. His office declined to comment on the impending suit.

The Jacksonville Port Authority released a statement Tuesday through its spokeswoman Nancy Rubin saying JaxPort is “looking forward to continued progress on this project which is vital to support jobs and the economic prosperity of the region,” Rubin said. “We will trust the legal process to unfold from here as needed.”

Meanwhile, the Riverkeeper is continuing to push for a non-binding agreement reached in January that includes the breaching of the Rodman Dam in Putnam County.

The Riverkeeper says the breach is needed to allow the Ocklawaha River to replenish the St. Johns with much needed fresh water to offset an increase in salinity expected as a result of deepening the river from 40 to 47 feet.

But Putnam County officials oppose that plan, which needs approval from the both the federal government and state Legislature, because it would empty a popular fishing reservoir.

The Riverkeeper has 60 days to make good on its promise.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.