The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is continuing to seek public input on its proposed plan for dredging in the Brunswick Harbor in Glynn County.
Those opposed to the plan, which would remove a long-held winter dredging window in Georgia, say the proposed work will kill nesting sea turtles that come to the state’s beaches every summer to lay their eggs.
A public comment period is now open and will close July 21.
The corps announced last month an updated “integrated feasibility report/environmental assessment” and a draft “finding of no significant impact” for the Brunswick Harbor Modification Study.
“The purpose of the report is to investigate the feasibility of reducing transportation cost inefficiencies associated with the federal deep draft navigation channel at Brunswick Harbor, Georgia,” said Rashida Banks, a spokesperson for the corps’ Savannah District. “It also incorporates the South Atlantic Regional Biological Opinion for Dredging and Material Placement Activities in the Southeast United States (2020 SARBO) into operations and maintenance of the Brunswick Harbor Federal Navigation Project.”
The corps is undertaking this action in partnership with the Georgia Ports Authority, Banks said.
“This IFR/EA identifies a recommended plan for improving navigation that is economically justified and promotes national economic development while protecting the nation’s environment,” she said.
The corps opened a public comment period seeking input on these plans in June. Since the conclusion of a previous public comment period, the corps has updated the analysis in plans to provide clarity and additional analysis related to the operations and maintenance of the channel, according to a recent press release.
This study incorporates the 2020 SARBO and replaces seasonal windows with a “risk-based management approach” that the corps says considers risk to multiple species in any given area.
One Hundred Miles, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, filed a legal challenge and motion for preliminary injunction earlier this year against the corps’ plan to eliminate seasonal dredging windows. At that time, the work was set to begin this summer.
But a federal judge ordered May 20 for the corps to halt plans to dredge in the local shipping channel this summer.
“Last May, in advance of the preliminary injunction hearing in this case, the corps conceded that One Hundred Miles would ultimately succeed on the merits and admitted that the agency violated federal law when it failed to conduct an environmental review of its actions,” said Catherine Ridley, vice president for education and communications for One Hundred Miles. “Essentially, they hadn’t given the public any notification of this change or conducted any substantive environmental analysis as to the impact of their plans. This most recent EA/FONSI contains a bit more information about the corps’ proposal to conduct year-round dredging in Brunswick Harbor and opens up a brief comment period for the public to weigh in on the change.”
Many have criticized this removal of seasonal windows, insisting that the long-held practice of only dredging in the winter months significantly reduces the dangerous risks that sea turtles face.
Sea turtles return to the coast of Georgia each summer to lay nests on the state’s beaches, and hatchlings emerge from the nests in late summer and fall months and make their way out into the ocean.
Winter dredging requirements were put in place in Georgia decades ago to protect the nesting process of at-risk sea turtle species. Opponents to year-round dredging say it would result in the death of many sea turtles, setting back decades of conservation work to recover the species.
Corps representatives have argued that year-round dredging would offer better protections for other at-risk species, like the nearly extinct North Atlantic right whale, which travels to Georgia’s coastal waters each winter for its calving season.
Conservationists have pushed back against this claim, saying the risks that dredging poses to other species is not equivalent to what sea turtles will face if dredging can occur at any time in the year.
The Brunswick Harbor modification will also improve port traffic operations, the corps’ press release stated.
“The modification will widen the navigation channel in key locations to improve the maneuverability and efficiency of larger roll-on/roll-off vessels that are calling on the growing port of Brunswick,” per the release.
The update released by the corps falls short of a true analysis of the threat, Ridley said.
“It contains multiple inaccuracies and misrepresents the scientific data we’ve collected for decades here in Georgia, and continues to override the recommendations of our state scientists,” she said. “We deserve better — and most importantly, so do our sea turtles. It’s imperative that, at a minimum, the corps must conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in order to accurately understand the true impacts of year-round dredging.”
One Hundred Miles is encouraging members of the public to submit comments online at OneHundredMiles.org/Dredging.
“This is a critical step,” Ridley said. “I know it sometimes feels like we just went through this process, but our fight is far from over.”
More than 1,500 Georgians submitted comments earlier this year when the Coastal Resources Division of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources opened a public input period regarding the corps’ plan to widen the shipping channel.
“We need those same voices, and many more, to speak out now,” Ridley said. “If anything, the stakes are even higher, and we need everyone to submit comments on behalf of our loggerhead sea turtles — before it’s too late.”
Ridley said her concerns about the proposed plan remain the same. Spring and summer dredging, she said, will kill nesting sea turtles and put recovery efforts back decades.
“There is no logical, data-supported reason for this change, especially when winter dredging windows have been in place and proven effective for more than three decades,” she said.”We must demand a complete, scientifically-accurate evaluation of the environmental impacts of this proposed change and ask the corps to give this process the full attention and respect it deserves.”
The entire Integrated Feasibility Report and Environmental Assessment and draft FONSI can be read at online at https://go.usa.gov/xw9Wt.