Money for port expansion still blocked, Army Corps says

More than a year ago, U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel told a top federal official to withhold funding for the Port of Palm Beach’s proposed dredging and expansion project unless and until there’s a community consensus of approval.

Thursday, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Deputy District Engineer Tim Murphy told the port commission that funding hold still stands until the port and other parties agree on a plan that is acceptable to all.

Port commissioners questioned how that can happen because the opposition is a diverse group that includes everyone from Town of Palm Beach residents to snorkelers, divers, fishermen and environmentalists.

Commission Chairman Blair Ciklin asked, “Can any member of Congress put a stop on a project of this magnitude?”

“This is the congresswoman that represents the district in which the project is located,” Murphy said. “It only takes one fly in the ointment, and you are in a hold mode.”

In June 2014, Frankel wrote Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army, asking that federal funding be withheld for the $88.6 million that would have allowed a harbor depth of 39 feet.

Port officials conceded in January that they are willing to pursue a downsized project that could cost about $20 million to keep the Lake Worth Inlet at Palm Beach Harbor safe for navigation at its authorized 33-foot depth.

Lisa Interlandi, an Everglades Law Center attorney representing The Sierra Club, Florida Wildlife Federation and the Center for Biological Diversity, urged the commission to shelve the project. She said the environmental and economic impacts of the expansion, deepening, widening and accompanying blasting have not been fully considered.

Interlandi said an expansion would seriously harm the marine life around Peanut Island and sedimentation and turbidity might reach as far north as Phil Foster Park and MacArthur Beach State Park.

Capt. Reid Hansen, one of five harbor pilots at the port, said the pilots are concerned about safety, especially where the 400-foot wide channel narrows to 300-feet, making it difficult for ships to maneuver.

“We have been using these same parameters here for decades and ships just keep getting bigger,” Hansen said. “We are going to get phased out as a port. We turn ships away all the time. They end up going to Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, Miami, and that cargo ends up getting here on a tractor trailer instead of on a ship right here in our backyard.”

Felicia Goldstein, Frankel’s district director, said Frankel has repeatedly said she would like the port to sit with its neighbors and come up with a plan that is amicable to all.

Commissioner Wayne Richards said he has met numerous times with the groups representing eight to 12 segments of the community.

“To suggest that we would be able to corral everyone and get consensus is very difficult and has been impossible thus far,” Richards said.

Commissioner Peyton McArthur said that the funding hold is doing more harm than good towards building a consensus because it has removed any incentive for an agreement to be reached.

“If I were the Town of Palm Beach, or if I were another entity that wanted no dredging under any circumstances, Lois just gave me a trump card,” McArthur said. “Lois just tilted the playing field.”

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