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Army Corps Biologist To Plead Guilty To Lying

A cargo ship leaves PortMiami following the $205 million dredge.
Miami Herald archives
A cargo ship leaves PortMiami following the $205 million dredge.

A former lead biologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who managed the controversial dredging of PortMiami will plead guilty to lying, her attorney told a Miami federal judge on Tuesday.

Terri Jordan-Sellers was charged in May with lying to investigators with the U.S. Department of Defense about working part-time with an environmental consultant hired for the project. Jordan-Sellers, a lead biologist in the agency's planning division working on projects in the Southeastern U.S., also oversaw environmental planning for the stalled Port Everglades dredge. She began working for the agency in 2001.

Attorney Paul Petruzzi told U.S. Judge Cecilia Altonaga that his client planned to plead guilty when she returns to court in July. Petruzzi and Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Watts-Fitzgerald declined to comment on details of the plea deal. If convicted, she could have faced up to five years in prison.

Jordan-Sellers also declined to comment.

"She just kind of wants to move on," Petruzzi said.

Credit Miami Waterkeeper

The PortMiami dredge that began in 2014 drew criticism from other government agencies and environmentalists after divers found more dead and damaged coral than allowed under an environmental permit. The dredge deepened parts of the channel to 50 feet to allow bigger ships sailing through the Panama Canal. A Corps study blamed the damage on a new coral disease detected off Virginia Key in 2014.

But biologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the University of Miami and Miami Waterkeeper disputed the findings. A NOAA study later found the area was about 14 times larger than the permit allowed. The Corps later agreed to replant 10,000 coral to settle a lawsuit filed by Miami Waterkeeper, but the full scope of how much damage needs to be repaired remains undetermined.

The reef tract stretches from the Keys to Palm Beach County and is the only inshore tract in the continental U.S. It helps draw tourists from around the world and, in the face of rising sea levels, is considered a valuable barrier for the coast. A study funded by the Defense Department earlier this year found the reef provides about $657 million in protection annually between Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

The Corps has said it is cooperating with the U.S. Attorney's office but would not say whether it was reviewing Jordan-Sellers' work. She is scheduled to return to court on July 12.

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.