Dredging of Puerto Rico's largest port begins as environmentalists warn of threat to turtles, corals

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A $62 million project to dredge Puerto Rico's largest and most important seaport began Wednesday amid fierce opposition from environmentalists and an ongoing lawsuit .

Crews from California-based Curtin Maritime will remove nearly 3 million cubic meters (76 million cubic feet) of seabed to open San Juan Bay to larger vessels, including oil tankers that will service a new gas terminal natural liquefied on the north coast of Puerto Rico.


The dredged material will be deposited in the Atlantic Ocean two nautical miles (four kilometers) north of the U.S. territory, under a decision approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, officials said.

FILE - In this July 29, 2015 file photo, the Puerto Rican flag flies in front of the Puerto Rico Capitol, as in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Puerto Rico's governor is continuing his main campaign promise of attempting to convert the U.S. territory into a state, holding a referendum on Sunday, June 11, 2017, to allow voters to send a message to Congress.  (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo, file)

A project to dredge Puerto Rico's largest seaport began Wednesday despite opposition from environmentalists. (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said the project overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expected to provide a $400 million boost to the local economy, adding that dredging will be completed by October.

He dismissed concerns from environmentalists who said the project would endanger wildlife and humans. “This has already been authorized at all federal levels, including any environmental impacts it might have,” he said.

In August 2022, the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based nonprofit, filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. government, claiming the project threatened to destroy corals and seagrass beds and suck up the turtles and other marine species.

The trial is ongoing in a U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., with the last hearing taking place in January.

“We hope for a decision soon,” Catherine Kilduff, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a telephone interview.

“Dredging itself generates sediment that can kill corals,” she said. “These corals have been affected by disease and warming waters, and so we fear that this dredging project… could spell doom.”

Kilduff said the center is also concerned about manatees swimming in San Juan Bay, where they rely on seagrass beds for food and are struck by ships.

She said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last dredged the bay in the early 2000s, promising to plant an acre of seagrass beds.

“They still haven’t done it,” she said.

Kilduff noted that the federal government held a public comment period on the dredging project when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm in 2017, leaving the island without power or passable roads.

A USACE spokesperson did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

As the governor shared details of the project Wednesday, a dredging vessel began operations in the background.

Officials said it would dig down to 46 feet (14 meters), with some areas of San Juan Bay currently at depths ranging from 36 feet (11 meters) to 42 feet (13 meters).


“The Port of San Juan is an economic engine and vital lifeline for Puerto Rico,” Col. Charles Decker of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in the release. “This is a phenomenal investment in Puerto Rico’s future.”

The Corps is investing nearly $45 million in the project, with the Puerto Rico government providing the remainder.


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