By Rachel Brown Hackney
As it has planned since late last year, Save Our Siesta Sand 2 (SOSS2) has filed a complaint in federal court to try to prevent the City of Sarasota and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from removing any sand from Big Sarasota Pass to renourish an approximately 1.6-mile stretch of South Lido Key Beach.
“The Corps, through its issuance of [its Final Environmental Assessment/Finding of No Significant Impact for the project] failed to adhere to the standards set forth by the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), the Clean Water Act (“CWA”), and the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) and is in turn [in] violation of the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA),” the complaint says.
(The APA “governs the process by which federal agencies develop and issue regulations,” the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website explains.)
The SOSS2 complaint points out that under NEPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) “may authorize an activity” such as the Lido Renourishment Project “only if the USACE has fully analyzed the activity’s direct, indirect, and cumulative environmental impacts, informed the public and decision makers about those impacts before making its decisions; and based its authorization on reliable information and accurate scientific analysis.”
In a Jan. 11 press release, Jane West, principal of her eponymous law firm in St. Augustine, contends that the USACE “failed to take a hard look at the consequences [the Lido] project will have on imperiled species as well as the impacts to the human environment, in particular the local economy of Sarasota County’s beaches in the wake of one of the state’s worst red tide outbreaks.”
West added, “This region’s marine species and local economy simply cannot afford to take another hit as a result of reckless permitting at the expense of our natural ecosystem.”
Peter van Roekens, chair of SOSS2, said in the release that the project “will negatively impact navigation of recreational and commercial watercraft transiting the only local navigational inlet without a drawbridge between Sarasota and the Gulf of Mexico. We must prevent this damage from happening,” he added, noting that the nonprofit organization is “filing this suit for hundreds of our members as well as for thousands of additional Siesta Key residents, visitors and business owners who have similar concerns.”
Getting to this point
On June 18, 2018, the City of Sarasota and the USACE received a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to remove up to 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from Big Pass as the first step in a 50-year-long initiative to stabilize the critically eroded Lido Key Beach.
Since it was formally incorporated in 2014, the nonprofit SOSS2 has argued that the plans could lead to harm to Siesta Key, as well as to sea life and navigation in the waterway, which lies between Lido Key and Siesta Key.
In August 2016, the Sarasota County Commission asked the USACE to undertake an in-depth Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the proposal involving Big Pass. The USACE asserted, in response, that its analyses of the project showed that no harm would result for Siesta Key or Big Pass.
Last summer, SOSS2 gave the USACE one more opportunity to pursue an EIS, announcing that it would file suit if the federal agency refused to do so. The USACE offered no response to the nonprofit. As a result, on Sept. 28, 2018, SOSS2 provided the formal 60-day notice to the federal agency and FDEP that it would pursue a legal remedy in federal court.
The complaint was filed on Jan. 11 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, which is located in Tampa.
The USACE “does not comment on matters in litigation,” Susan J. Jackson, spokeswoman for the USACE in its Jacksonville District Office, reported on Oct. 1, 2018, after SOSS2 provided the notice of intent to file suit.
In a Jan. 15 email to the Sarasota city commissioners, City Manager Tom Barwin attached a copy of the SOSS2 lawsuit. He pointed out that the USACE project has been “permitted, funded and [is] being prepared for bidding, to protect and stabilize the vulnerable Lido Key shoreline.”
Barwin added, “We are not a defendant in this filing but the case is related to an important project in the city which is expected to proceed late in the year.”
Van Roekens has pointed out on numerous occasions that the city never has had a “Plan B” — that the city has remained committed to the USACE’s proposal to use sand primarily from Big Pass, which never has been dredged. Even when members of the public and Siesta organizations began raising concerns years ago about the potential harm of taking sand from Big Pass — based on past, independent scientific research — the city has stood resolute in its support of the USACE.
A 1994 study undertaken by D.G. Aubrey and Robert Dolan noted, “Siesta Key’s stability and low erosion rates are linked, both directly and indirectly, to the Big Sarasota Pass ebb shoal’s capacity to shelter the key from high wave and storm forces, as well as to the sand transport that occurs in conjunction with the shoal, the pass, and the key. If [proposed] dredging … by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is carried out, this will modify the wave and storm protection an alter the sediment supply to the onshore beaches.”
At the time, Aubrey was president of his own consulting firm and a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Dolan was a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia.
Their report was written as the USACE pursued plans to undertake a 2.1-million cubic yard renourishment project for beaches in the Venice area. That proposal ultimately was defeated through a legal challenge.