A federal judge granted a temporary halt Thursday to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers move to start a new dredging schedule that environmentalists worry puts endangered sea turtles at risk along the Georgia coast during peak nesting season.
Attorneys representing the Corps and environmental agency One Hundred Miles spent several hours inside a U.S. District courtroom arguing their cases before Judge Stan Baker ruled that hopper dredging during the warmer months of the year poses a significant danger to loggerhead turtles off the Port of Brunswick.
Baker’s injunction prevents the Corps through Dec. 14 from deploying hopper dredges, which act like a vacuum cleaner along the seabed as it clears out sediment and debris to allow commercial ships to safely maneuver through channels.
Under the Corps’ planned new timetable, the federal agency planned to start the 20-day dredging process on May 28.
But Baker didn’t buy the Corps’ reasoning for ending a decades-long practice of winter dredging.
“Frankly, it’s a stretch to believe the Corps would refrain from spring and summer dredging in a critical area for three decades if it did not believe there was a danger and significant danger to loggerheads during that time,” said the Southern District Court of Georgia judge.
The Army Corp shifted to a spring and summer dredging following a biological opinion report from the National Marine Fisheries Services.
Corps officials argue the new schedule would better protect endangered whales and their calves during the colder months.
A witness for the Corps noted the strong population growth in recent years for the loggerheads, which broke record nesting numbers in 2019 along Georgia’s coast.
The Corps said that the One Hundred Miles could not prove the hopper dredging would likely cause “irreparable” harm to the turtles.
Thursday ruling was a welcoming development for One Hundred Miles but didn’t put an end to a battle that could play out in other coastal areas, said Catherine Ridley, sea turtle project coordinator with One Hundred Miles.
Attorneys with the Southern Environmental Law Center are representing One Hundred Miles in the lawsuit that says the Corps broke federal laws by not performing an environmental review before changing the dredging schedule.
“It’s really a testament and a great day for everyone who’s worked so hard to protect them over the years,” Ridley said. “We’re thrilled with what happened today, but we know it’s only one step, and we’re going to need everybody behind us.
“This was a ruling specific to Brunswick Harbor, but we know based on the Corp’s dredge schedule that they had also planned to dredge in Savannah,” Ridley added.
Baker cited the credibility of testimony from Department Wildlife Biologist Mark Dodd, who criticized the shifting of the dredging window, a change that the Georgia Department of Natural Resources estimates could kill as many as 87% of the loggerheads nesting near Brunswick.