Weeks after dredging began in Big Pass, FDEP finally posts compliance reports, following repeated Siesta Key Association requests for transparency

Save Our Siesta Sand 2 seeking to get final ruling in its lawsuit against U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of effort to prevent future removal of sand from pass

An aerial view, taken by drone on Aug. 5, shows how much of Lido Beach has been widened. Image courtesy of Michael Holderness

With the removal of sand underway in Big Sarasota Pass to renourish Lido Key Beach, leaders of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) have expressed concerns to both state and Sarasota County environmental officials about several issues, including a lack of transparency on the state’s part.

At the same time, leaders of the nonprofit Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2) have been working on options since a federal judge refused their request for a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) to prevent the dredging, which began on Saturday, July 18.

Siesta Key architect Mark Smith, who took over late last year as chair of SOSS2, told The Sarasota News Leader that the organization’s goal at this point is to wrap up its lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), which it filed in the U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Florida in January 2019.

Although Chief Judge Steven Merryday denied the TRO motion, Smith pointed out in a July 31 telephone interview with the News Leader, the case is still pending. If Merryday would issue a final ruling, Smith added, then SOSS2 leaders at least would have the option of filing an appeal with the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Atlanta.

The goal, Smith pointed out of SOSS2’s latest efforts, is to try to prevent any subsequent dredging of Big Pass, as the permit the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) issued to the USACE and its co-applicant, the City of Sarasota, in June 2018 is valid for 15 years.

The USACE has said that more sand will need to be placed on Lido approximately every five years. The project, as designed, is to encompass 50 years.

On the morning of Aug. 6, SKA Director Robert Luckner emailed Gregory Garis, administrator of FDEP’s Beaches, Inlets, and Ports Program, to point out that it had been a week since the nonprofit had contacted Garis to request a link to the FDEP website where weekly reports on turbidity would be posted for the Lido Key Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project.

An Aug. 3 image of Big Pass appears to show turbidity, or cloudiness, in the water. Image courtesy of Michael Holderness

“These weekly reports are required per specific condition 32 [of the FDEP permit],” Luckner added. “SKA understands there have now been two violations that required project shutdown [of the dredge] in the past three weeks.”

Finally, early in the afternoon of Aug. 6, Garis responded: “I have staff working to get them uploaded. I apologize for the delay. I will send a link as soon as they are uploaded.”

Then Garis added, “To clarify, turbidity exceedances are not permit violations. It is the [Department’s] understanding the contractor has followed permit requirements once notified of an exceedance.”

The contractor for the Lido initiative is Cottrell Contracting Corp. of Chesapeake, Va.

A section of the revised FDEP permit, issued on April 10, says, “If monitoring reveals turbidity levels at the compliance sites are greater [than the maximum limits], construction activities shall cease immediately [emphasis in the document] and not resume until corrective measures have been taken and turbidity has returned to acceptable levels.”

That section notes that Big Pass has been designated Outstanding Florida Waters, as shown on USACE documents related to the Lido project.

The dredge Rockbridge works in Borrow Area C in Big Pass, just south of Lido Key Beach and Ted Sperling Park. Image courtesy of Michael Holderness

Further, the permit section says, “Any project-associated turbidity source other than dredging or fill placement for beach nourishment (e.g., scow or pipeline leakage) shall be monitored as close to the source as possible.” Again, it continues, if the turbidity level exceeds the maximum limits allowed in Outstanding Florida Waters, “the construction activities related to the exceedance shall cease immediately and not resume until corrective measures have been taken and turbidity has returned to acceptable levels [emphasis once more in the permit]. … The Permittee shall notify the Department’s [Joint Coastal Permits] Compliance Officer … of such an event within 24 hours of the time the Permittee first becomes aware of the discharge.”

SKA President Catherine Luckner pointed out to the News Leader that the permit makes it clear that monitoring reports must be submitted to the Compliance Officer. “Failure to [do so] in a timely manner constitutes grounds for revocation of the permit,” the permit states.

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) article defines turbidity as “an optical quality of light transmission through a fluid containing sediment particles …”

That article also notes that total suspended sediment (TSS) levels “are shown to have adverse effects on benthic communities” when they exceed 390 milligrams per liter, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a 1986 report.

“Coastal Benthic Communities,” the EPA explains in one of its Report on the Environment articles, “are largely composed of macroinvertebrates, such as annelids, mollusks, and crustaceans. These organisms inhabit the bottom substrates of estuaries and play a vital role in maintaining sediment and water quality. They also are an important food source for bottom-feeding fish, invertebrates, and birds. Communities of benthic organisms are important indicators of environmental stress because they are particularly sensitive to pollutant exposure (Holland et al., 1987). This sensitivity arises from the close relationship between benthic organisms and sediments — which can accumulate environmental contaminants over time — and the fact that these organisms are relatively immobile, which means they receive prolonged exposure to contaminants in their immediate habitat (Sanders et al., 1980; Nixon et al., 1986).”

A July 25 aerial view shows the pipeline through which new sand is being placed on Lido Beach. Part of Ted Sperling Park is visible in the lower right area of the photo. Image courtesy of Michael Holderness

On the afternoon of Aug. 6, Robert Luckner provided the News Leader copies of two emails he finally had found, through an FDEP records search, regarding the turbidity reports. Sent from USACE personnel, they noted that the first turbidity exceedance incident occurred just after 1 p.m. on July 20, “at the beach fill sampling site.” By 2:07 p.m. that day, the email said, the turbidity had subsided “and was within acceptable level.”

Initially, in a July 20 email, USACE Project Engineer Andy Cummings wrote that he did not think the Cottrell Contracting crew stopped its work right away, as required by the FDEP permit. In a later email, Cummings added that he did believe construction ceased until the turbidity level was within acceptable limits.

Another email from the USACE, sent on July 22 to the FDEP compliance officer, reported a second incident that occurred on July 21. Again, the location was the beach fill site. That incident, the email noted, was reported at 12:25 p.m.

Retesting a little more than an hour later showed that the turbidity had receded to “an acceptable compliance level,” the email continued, so dredging resumed at 2:35 p.m.

The July 21 incident may have been the result of the tide’s beginning to go out, another email in that chain pointed out.

Extra sand in front of Sperling Park?

This Jan. 24 engineering drawing in the USACE solicitation for the Lido Hurricane and Storm Damage Reduction Project shows the southernmost limit of beach fill would be determined by the USACE field officer on-site. Image courtesy USACE
This aerial view taken on July 30 shows new sand on the shoreline at Ted Sperling Park. Image courtesy of Michael Holderness

Yet another concern SKA leaders have raised is whether Cottrell Contracting has complied with the USACE template for placement of sand on South Lido.

On July 20, Robert Luckner sent Garis of FDEP a series of aerial photos of the Lido shoreline, provided by SKA member Michael Holderness, who employed a drone to obtain the images.

“Could you please have someone look at this and determine whether the nourishment sand is outside the approved beach template plate 7 attached,” Robert Luckner wrote Garis.

Although the FDEP permit allows for up to 1.3 million cubic yards of sand to be removed from Big Pass, the USACE solicitation for the Lido project calls for only 710,000 cubic yards to be placed on the beach.

In a July 28 email to the Luckners, Garis wrote, “Based on available information, it appears work is being conducted in compliance with the permit and surveys will be conducted to ensure this.”

Further, the Luckners voiced dismay to the News Leader that Sarasota County environmental staff members have not replied to SKA correspondence about the potential changes to the shoreline at Ted Sperling Park on the southernmost point of Lido; the park is county property. Robert Luckner called county staff members “amazingly quiet,” adding, “They haven’t called us or written us at all.”

In the past, he noted, when the SKA has raised concerns about issues related to the park, Nicole Rissler, director of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, or Shawn Yeager, manager of the Beaches and Water Accesses Division of that department, wrote a response.

Although the News Leader on Aug. 6 requested county comments about the SKA’s concern, the publication received no response prior to its deadline.

Lights and tires

This is a photo taken of the Rockbridge in Big Pass about 10 p.m. on July 22. Image courtesy of Michael Holderness

One other complaint that arose shortly after the dredging began in Big Pass was related to lights on Cottrell Contracting’s vessel, Rockbridge.

SKA member Mike Holderness had complained to county staff about that issue, writing in an email that one photo he was sending “was taken around 10:00 PM on July 22, 2020,” while the second in his email “was taken around 8:49 PM [on] July 16, 2020 showing the lights from the [dredge] have not been shielded at all for the protection of sea [turtles].” He added that he believed that was a violation of state and county regulations designed to protect sea turtles and hatchlings.

Rachel Herman, manager of the county’s Environmental Protection Division, forwarded Holderness’ email to Sarasota City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw.

On July 23, DavisShaw responded to Holderness, writing that she had contacted the USACE Its reply followed, she noted:

“They have done all that is possible to limit the lighting while maintaining safe work conditions on the dredge for the crew. The lights on the front and back of the dredge (shining forward and backward) are the most intense lights. But they must remain on while the dredge is operating so the operator can monitor the conditions on the forward dredge decks and around the back end of the dredge. Those are generally the most hazardous areas for the workers because of large moving equipment … [T]he operator has to be able to see those areas for the dredge to [function].”

The USACE response also noted, “They did install some red bulbs on the smaller fixtures down both [sides] of the dredge that illuminate those weather deck areas near the water to decrease the lighting intensity there. In the photo [Holderness sent to county staff], it appears there may have been additional lighting shining down towards the forward decks of the dredge at that time. This is the dredge ladder area,” the response added, noting that that the cutterhead and pumps [are] mounted on the ladder [and] can be raised and lowered with the ladder.”

The USACE response also explained a problem the Rockbridge crew had encountered: tires that were deposited within Borrow Area C of Big Pass “probably several decades ago. The tires were used … to attempt to construct artificial reefs (which failed). The tires are continually becoming lodged in the dredge cutterhead and in the pumps.”

Referring again to the photo Holderness had sent, the USACE response added, “[I]t is likely the ladder was raised to access the cutter and/or the ladder pump to dislodge tires from these areas. [The crew members] have been doing this at times about every 30 minutes. That is necessary to keep the dredge running but it is a very dangerous process and must be performed with very good lighting at night. Obviously the crew [members] are going out on that ladder deck over the water to pull and cut [out] tires … that have been twisted into the machinery.”

This is a cutterhead on a dredge used in a USACE project in the Memphis District in 2019. Image courtesy USACE

“As for the dredge lighting,” the USACE response continued, “it is in compliance with the permit and [U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration] OSHA requirements.”

Finally, in regard to another concern Holderness had raised, the email said, “[T]he dredge positioning data indicates the dredge has been digging within the permitted borrow area C limits,” which meant that the vessel would avoid the City of Sarasota utility line in Big Pass.