The city of Spanish Fort is asking for more time to evaluate a controversial plan by the Alabama State Port Authority (ASPA) to create 1,200 acres of wetlands in Upper Mobile Bay using dredged material from the Port of Mobile. As Lagniappe reported last week, a 30-day public comment period on the transformative project opened Dec. 2, but concerns have since been raised about public awareness of the project and its potential environmental ramifications.
On Monday, the Spanish Fort City Council unanimously passed a resolution asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) to extend the public comment period for another 60 days. Mayor Mike McMillan said he’s contacted multiple agencies since learning about the proposal earlier this month and “there’s too many unanswered questions.”
“This is not an effort to disrupt anything at the State Docks,” McMillan said, noting the importance of the port on the local economy. “I just think it’s very rushed to put this through in a month’s time, during a holiday period, when people are so distracted with other things in their life.”
Spanish Fort has its own plan to invest in improvements along the Causeway, and at Monday night’s meeting, Councilman J.R. Smith said he’d be interested to know more about the toxicity of the dredged material and long-term impacts of ASPA’s proposal.
“I think it’s imperative we get the right environmental scientists to see what kind of effect that dredging has going forward,” he said.
McMillan said the site where ASPA is planning to dispose of the dredge material — in a shallow flat of two to six feet of water about a mile and a half south of the Causeway — “is very dear to me.”
“We have one chance to do this and do it right,” he said. “I need more eyes on this project. I think it’s being rushed through too fast. There are a lot of different opinions and I think the comment period needs to be out there for another 60 days at least to give the experts a chance to really look at it and understand what it’s going to do to the bay … I don’t want to see this rushed into.”
Similarly, Mobile Baykeeper has published a blog and action alert for the project, emphasizing that while it “may be beneficial, it has potential issues that we believe are not suitably accounted for in the initial permit application.” Among Baykeeper’s chief concerns are the lack of a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), the project’s long-term sustainability and the brief window USACE has allowed for public comments.
More specifically, Baykeeper believes the dredged sediments should be tested for heavy metals and other contaminants, the project should be resilient to storms and global warming, the public comment period should be extended and a public hearing should be scheduled.
“We strongly suggest the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requires the Port Authority to apply to permit a much smaller portion of this project and define what criteria would show success,” Baykeeper wrote. “The Port Authority can then assess if the smaller project is successful before filling 1,200 acres of water bottoms with dredge spoils.”
Dustin Gautney, the newly appointed chief of public affairs for the Mobile District Corps of Engineers, emphasized ASPA is the project’s sponsor and USACE’s role “is to evaluate the project in accordance with our authorities under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act and Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act.” Part of that process is to ask for public comment to aid in the Corps’ evaluation process, Gautney said, adding that no permitting decision has yet been made for the project.
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