Keys marine sanctuary settles damage case for almost $1 million

Precht, Bill Bprecht at
Mon Dec 23 11:02:36 EST 2002

Dear Coral-List:

Another news flash of interest.

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The Miami Herald,

Posted on Sat, Dec. 21, 2002

Keys sanctuary case is settled for $969,000
Tug ran aground there in May '93
Associated Press

The nation's largest dredge company has agreed to pay a record $969,000 to
help restore coral and seagrass damaged when a tugboat ran aground in the
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary nearly 10 years ago.

Money from the settlement announced Friday will cover reef repairs and help
reimburse government agencies for their response to the Florida Bay

''This adds to our authority to collect damages in these cases, so it will
definitely help us in obtaining settlements in the future,'' said Cheva
Heck, spokeswoman for the sanctuary protecting the longest barrier reef
after Australia and Belize.

The Justice Department said in a release it was the largest settlement ever
negotiated for a grounding in the sanctuary.

Calls to the company and its lawyer were not returned.

A judge initially ordered Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. to pay $368,797. But
both the company and the government appealed in a test of Commerce
Department powers under the 1972 National Marine Sanctuaries Act.

The appeals court voided the original amount and sided with the federal
agency, opening up Great Lakes to a potentially larger bill if the case were

Sharon Shutler, attorney for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, said she was ''thrilled'' with the agreement. ``Now we
finally have the means to restore these important sanctuary resources.''

The sanctuary plans to combine the money from Oak Brook, Ill.-based Great
Lakes with a $618,485 settlement reached with Coastal Marine Towing, a tug
company involved in the grounding in May 1993.

Great Lakes hired Coastal Marine Towing to carry 500-foot pipes around the
tip of Florida. One of the pipes came loose and left a 13-mile scar on the
bottom of the bay separating the Florida peninsula and the Keys.

The tug hauling the errant pipe was slowed by the drag. A second of four
tugs traveling together tried to pass but ran aground, damaging nearly two
acres of coral and grass.

The pipe track recovered naturally in three years. But experts estimated
damage from the grounding would take 70 years to heal with human
intervention and more than 100 years naturally.

The tug, Captain Joe, ran aground in water seven feet deep in a section of
the bay where the deepest water is 11 feet. Intermixed mud flats can be as
shallow as six inches.

''Groundings in the sanctuary are a huge problem. We have an average of 600
reported groundings per year,'' Heck said. ``It's everything from small
boats running aground in seagrass beds to major groundings in coral.''

The sanctuary plans to spend more than $1 million at the grounding site and
$405,000 at other damage sites in the 2,800-square mile sanctuary, which was
created in 1990.

Keys waters are popular with fishermen, divers and recreational boaters.

The reefs, perhaps the biggest draw, protect fish and other marine life.

NOAA Press Release on settlement:

NOAA 02-167
December 20, 2002
Charles Miller, ENRD

Cheva Heck, NOAA
305.292.0311, x26
305.304.0179, cell

Settlement to Restore Seagrass & Coral in Florida Keys National Marine

WASHINGTON, D.C.     Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company of Oak Brook, Ill.,
will pay nearly $1 million for damages to seagrass and other natural
resources in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, the Justice
Department and the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration (NOAA) announced today.

The $969,000 settlement reached on behalf of NOAA and the State of Florida
is the largest ever obtained for damages to seagrass in the sanctuary.  The
funds, combined with an earlier $618,485 settlement obtained from
co-defendant Coastal Marine Towing, will help restore the injured areas and
reimburse NOAA for response costs.

"We are pleased with the settlement," said Sharon Shutler, attorney for the
NOAA General Counsel for Natural Resources.  "We have wanted to restore this
site since the groundings occurred in 1993.  After many years of litigation,
we finally have the means to restore these ecologically significant
sanctuary resources."

In May 1993, four tug boats owned by the two companies were transporting
heavy dredging equipment and dredge pipes from the Boca Grande Channel off
Florida's west coast to Green Cove Spring on the east coast.  Before the
flotilla reached Seven Mile Bridge off Marathon, Fla., one or more of the
dredge pipes being towed by one of the tugs came loose and dragged across
the bottom of Florida Bay, causing a scar 13 miles long and destroying
196,764 square feet of seagrass and other sanctuary resources.  The dragging
pipe caused the tug to slow, and another tug attempted to pass her.  The
other vessel ran hard aground, creating a massive hole and destroying 80,675
square feet of seagrass and coral, about one and a half times the size of a
football field, at an area called Red Bay Banks off Marathon.

While the coral reefs are the sanctuary's most famous resource, seagrass
meadows and other habitats, such as the mixed seagrass and finger coral
bottom at Red Bay Banks, are critical to fish and other marine life
populations.  Seagrass also filters and stabilizes sediments, helping to
create clear waters.

"One of our highest priorities is the restoration of our natural resources,
such as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary," said Tom Sansonetti,
Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Environment and
Natural Resources Division.  "The funds provided as a result of today's
settlement will help us achieve that goal."

The National Marine Sanctuaries Act authorizes NOAA to seek damages from the
responsible party in a grounding to cover response costs, injury and damage
assessment costs, costs to restore or replace the damaged habitat or acquire
equivalent habitat, and costs to compensate the public for the value of the
damage resources until they fully recover.

NOAA developed a restoration strategy that involved stabilizing the blowhole
and transplanting seagrasses into off-site areas damaged by boats to
compensate for the lost services provided by the resources destroyed in the
incident.  NOAA sought the cost of the restoration and assessment costs from
the two companies, eventually filing suit in Federal District Court.  Both
the Federal District Court and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found Great
Lakes strictly liable for the injuries to sanctuary resources.  Both courts
upheld NOAA's methodologies for determining the appropriate amount of
compensatory restoration, however, the courts had not agreed on the proper
measure of damages necessary to restore the bank. As a result, a settlement
was reached with the two companies.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, designated in 1990, protects
2,896 square nautical miles of critical marine habitat, including coral
reef, hard bottom, seagrass meadows, mangrove communities and sand flats.
NOAA and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection manage the
sanctuary.  For more information about the Florida Keys National Marine
Sanctuary, visit:

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