Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP

The siren song of deep water: Ports race to accommodate post-Panamax ships

Jacksonville, Florida, plans to deepen its shipping canal despite concerns over economic benefit and environmental risk

JACKSONVILLE, Florida — Jacksonville is one of many U.S. ports racing to accommodate the huge post-Panamax ships that will begin traversing the expanded Panama Canal next year. The city is considering deepening its St. Johns River shipping channel from 40 to 47 feet to handle them.

The $766 million project has environmentalists and fiscal conservatives pitted against business interests and politicians; the two sides disagree on essentially everything about the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) analysis of the project, including its cost, economic benefit and environmental harm.

And, thanks to President Barack Obama’s 2012 We Can’t Wait initiative, which shaved seven years off the timetable, the project is proceeding at a greatly accelerated rate. Jacksonville’s mayor has appointed a port task force that is scrambling to figure out how to pay the city’s estimated $416 million share of the cost — the state could also provide funding but has thus far not committed to do so — in time for a September 2015 deadline.

“The process is dysfunctional without the fast-tracking, and the fast-tracking just made it even more so,” said Lisa Rinaman of St. Johns Riverkeeper, a privately funded organization that aims to protect and promote the river, its wetlands and tributaries.

Jacksonville is one of 10 ports on the East Coast that are proposing, in the process of or have recently completed projects to accommodate post-Panamax ships. The total estimated cost of these projects is $5.49 billion. While it is of little question that the national economy will benefit from having more deep-water ports — critics point out that shipping companies certainly will — local economic benefits are far from certain. Nevertheless, Jacksonville’s and other deepening projects are being sold to the public with promises of economic growth.

The initiative has created the unlikely alliance of Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown, a Democrat, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, who have repeatedly appeared together to laud port development. U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, a Democrat, and Ander Crenshaw, a Republican, are also behind the project.

Jacksonville Port Authority (JaxPort) CEO Brian Taylor said that deepening is necessary to keep pace with the global shipping market. “If we do not deepen this harbor, we forgo these future opportunities,” he said.

There is some merit to this argument. According to The Washington Post, as of 2013, post-Panamax ships accounted for 16 percent of the world’s container fleet but carried 45 percent of its cargo. By 2030 it is predicted that these ships will carry 62 percent of the world’s cargo.

A post-Panamax vessel.

A 2013 economic assessment by Martin Associates — paid for by JaxPort —predicted that by 2035, deepening the channel will have created as many as 34,508 jobs and generated $10.8 billion to $12.7 billion in economic benefit. University of North Florida professor David D. Jaffee, who is an expert on the project, noted, however, that these jobs include related user jobs, which the assessment acknowledges are not dependent on JaxPort. These include manufacturing, wholesale and retail distribution jobs throughout the state in firms that receive and process cargo that arrives through the seaports.

Jean-Paul Rodrigue, a Hofstra University professor and an expert in the field of transportation economics, said that cities, including three within 240 driving miles (Jacksonville; Savannah, Georgia; and Charleston, South Carolina) of one another, are gambling that deepening their ports will bring more cargo ships in spite of the fact that competition among them is a “zero sum game,” in which “whatever somebody gains is going to be at the expense of the other.” He added that, particularly considering the current slowdown of global economic growth, there is not likely to be enough of an increase of traffic to justify all those projects.

“The bigger ships are not going to create by magic more business,” he said.

Spending $416 million to deepen the shipping channel (federal funding of $350 million was secured in 2014) is a big gamble for Jacksonville, which is mired in a pension crisis and other financial woes. And there are questions about the project’s actual cost, which Jaffee and Rinaman believe will be much higher than estimated, saying the ACOE either did not include or underestimated costs of improving transportation and other infrastructure, raising bulkheads, combating erosion caused by the larger wakes of bigger ships and mitigating environmental harm. ACOE project manager Jason Harrah said its estimate includes infrastructural improvements but acknowledged it does not include costs of maintaining the shipping channel, which it estimates at $800,000 to $1 million annually.

Controversy has recently arisen about the personal beliefs of the owner of the company the city hired to analyze the economics of the project, Xicon Economics. In his 2012 self-published book “Fall of a Nation: A Biblical Perspective of a Modern Problem,” Xicon owner Herbert M. Barber Jr. says Obama is “more anti-American than any 10,000 terrorists” and lumps Americans into two categories: “makers” and “takers,” the latter a broad category that seemingly includes stay-at-home moms, teachers, law enforcement, government workers and everyone who receives any form of government assistance. In his book Barber refers to racial integration as a “failed social experiment.” He recently defended himself in The Florida Times-Union, saying that criticizing him is a form of “Christian bashing” that “lends credence to my book.”

After local media brought the book to the mayor’s attention, the mayor released a statement that said, “I strongly condemn the views expressed in the book. The author’s commentary fails to reflect the values of our community and seriously undermines his credibility. We will be working with the port task force members to ensure that these unfortunate comments do not cloud their important efforts.” Amid cries for the city to back out of its $60,000 contract with his company, Xicon submitted its economic assessment on Feb. 26, and the city informed the company that its services were no longer needed. But Jacksonville will pay Xicon for the assessment, which concluded that the project is financially and economically feasible, will cost $813 million and will create $3.9 billion to $7.8 billion of economic benefits.

The environmental impact of the project is also hotly disputed.

The ACOE’s environmental impact statement concludes that removing 18 million cubic yards of sediment to deepen 13 miles of shipping channel will have a minimal environmental impact. But Rinaman believes that deepening the river will increase salinity, disturbing the delicate balance of the ecosystem and causing potentially great and irreparable harm to wildlife and aquatic vegetation, including submerged grasses that help protect the region from flooding and provide food and nursery resources for many species, including blue crab and shrimp, which are vital to the local fishing industry, as well as dolphins, sea turtles and the endangered West Indian manatee.

In an unconventional move, in January St. Johns Riverkeeper, Brown, the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce and JaxPort reached a nonbinding memorandum of understanding in which Rinaman agreed not to sue to block the project if funding and authorization were acquired to undam the Ocklawaha River. She believes that undamming the Ocklawaha, the largest tributary of the St. Johns, will mitigate increased salinity.

When the memorandum was announced on Jan. 10, it was the first anyone in neighboring Putnam County, the site of the dam and the Rodman Reservoir that it creates, had heard of it. The Rodman Reservoir is popular for outdoor recreation and bass fishing.

Putnam County Commissioner Chip Laibl told The Palatka Daily News, “We’re outraged that a regional decision would be discussed without input from Putnam County.” While Congress or the Florida Legislature can authorize and fund undamming the Ocklawaha, supporters have vowed to fight to keep the dam for the reservoir’s recreational and economic benefits as well as its effect on property values along its shores.

The St. Johns River already suffers from pollution, which in recent years has resulted in mass fish kills, a mysterious foam and algal blooms. During one such bloom in 2013, toxin levels 100 times higher than what the World Health Organization considers safe were found. Dredging and blasting, which is necessary to deepen the shipping channel to 47 feet, have the potential to exacerbate environmental problems.

“The environmental risks [of deepening] are multifaceted,” said Rinaman.

According to the Riverkeeper website, “blasting and dredging may increase the chances of saltwater intrusion of the [surficial] aquifer,” which the ACOE reports provides 5 percent of the city’s water. The ACOE holds that the risk of intrusion is low.

Harrah said that the ACOE will monitor the project’s environmental impact during the anticipated four to six years it will take to complete and for one year after that — the port has agreed to monitor for 10 years after completion — and require additional mitigation if it finds any harm.

But not everyone believes monitoring is a sufficient safeguard. Kevin R. Bodge, a certified coastal and port engineer with Florida coastal consulting company Olsen Associates, said, “I could tell you definitively that you could conclude from monitoring anything you want … You can never isolate the deepening from all the other things that are going on.”

St. Johns Riverkeeper believes that the ACOE’s monitoring of the port of Miami deepening project in Biscayne Bay is evidence that it cannot be trusted to protect the St. Johns River. After finding that protected coral reefs were being suffocated by sediment to a much greater extent than predicted, Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper sued the ACOE. Only then did the ACOE intervene.

“That’s the model you see. That’s what’s happening in Biscayne Bay … They do the very least they have to do to protect these resources, and then they may add some back in mitigation,” said Rinaman.

Harrah acknowledged that the ACOE originally allotted for $80 million of environmental mitigation but reduced it to $3 million after determining that deepening the St. Johns River will have minimal environmental impact.

A. Quinton White, the executive director of Jacksonville University’s Marine Science Research Institute and a member of the port task force, said that models like the one the ACOE uses to determine environmental impact are only as good as the data that go into them.

“The water management analysis says that deepening will have greater effect [on salinity] … The [ACOE] uses the same model and gets the opposite result,” he said.

In spite of the many questions and controversies associated with deepening the St. Johns River shipping channel, to many there is a sense of inevitability about the project that comes at least in part from the united front being presented by politicians and business interests who are convinced it will be a boon for Jacksonville’s economy.

“Our community is getting shortchanged. Our river is getting shortchanged,” Rinaman said.

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