A proposed $88.6 million dredging and expansion project at the Port of Palm Beach’s harbor is off the table for now, but a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chief’s Report stating that the improvements are needed will remain open until 2021.
On Thursday, the Port of Palm Beach Commission voted to accept executive director Manuel Almira’s recommendation that the port notify the Corps it does not want to pursue the Lake Worth Inlet navigational improvement project to widen two channels and deepen the inlet to 39 feet.
Almira said the port had received a request for the Army Corps asking if the Corps should include the project in its 2017 funding request to Congress.
The port’s tenants have all said they do not need a deeper inlet, as long as the inlet can be maintained at a 33-foot depth, Almira said.
The expansion has been widely opposed by residents of Palm Beach, Riviera Beach, Palm Beach Shores and environmental and marine groups who it would change the face of the area and could harm fishermen, divers, boaters, manatees and sea grasses.
In 2014, the Palm Beach Civic Association formed the Save Our Inlet Coalition to oppose the plans. The coalition said the Corps’ environmental impact statement was seriously flawed.
Lisa Interlandi, an attorney with the Everglades Law Center who represents the Save Our Inlet Coalition, The Sierra Club, Florida Wildlife Federation, and the Center for Biological Diversity told the commission, “I’m glad to hear there is not support for the larger project.”
However, Interlandi said she would like for port officials to completely abandon the project. It’s difficult to move forward with the chief’s report still open, placing the project on standby, she said.
Interlandi pointed to a recent study by the National Marine Fisheries Service which found dredging at the Port of Miami severely damaged reefs.
Commission Chairman Wayne Richards said that when the Corps presented the project, it was made clear the port could pick and choose what needed to be done, and it has several areas of significant concern.
“We just had a major maintenance dredge project here that was very successful,” Richards said.
While the port has turned away vessels recently that were too large, it’s an urban port surrounded by municipalities which have grown up around it, Richards said.
“How do you co-exist harmoniously?” Richards asked. “An $88 million project does not make sense and never made sense to us.”
He added: “This is a significant step on behalf of the Port of Palm Beach to work with our neighbors and greater marine community.”
A major reason for the proposed expansion has been concern for the safety of ships while attempting to maneuver where the 400-foot-wide channel narrows to 300 feet.
Richard Pinsky, a consultant and lobbyist hired by the port, said he is confident that funds will be available to keep navigation safe, but that a conversation with the harbor pilots needs to take place.