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Congressional Quarterly: Miami Seeks Amnesty for Foreign Sand

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Congressional Quarterly: Miami Seeks Amnesty for Foreign Sand

By Shawn Zeller

Politics may stop at the water's edge, but that leaves lots of room for policy showdowns at the beach.

Take the fate of fabled Miami Beach, which has long suffered steep rates of erosion under the pressure of beach-side development and frequent, powerful tropical storms.

To counteract such strains, Florida inaugurated a beach renourishment program in 1964, spending some $582 million of its own funds as of last year. In Miami, the Army Corps of Engineers oversees the program in conjunction with Miami-Dade County and the state of Florida.

The only problem is that nine years ago Congress mandated that the beach could be home only to fresh infusions of American sand. The roots of the provision — one sentence inserted into the conference report for the fiscal 1999 Energy and Water Development appropriations law — are unclear. But the provision's language is unequivocal: In an apparent attempt to protect the domestic dredging industry, it disallows any federal funds designated for beach renourishment in Miami-Dade County that "shall be used for the acquisition of foreign source materials," unless the secretary of the Army certifies to House and Senate appropriators that domestic sources are not available.

Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who represents Miami in the House, is now seeking a way to get some foreign sand hauled on barges to her hometown beachfront

And even to get to that point, he says, corps officials in Washington must first agree that all domestic sources have been exhausted. Stevens says he doesn't need further convincing on that score. "Right now, we feel we've looked far and wide for economically and environmentally acceptable sources," he says. But Stevens' report to his higher-ups is still awaiting approval at the regional office in Atlanta.

Miami officials say they can't afford to wait much longer. The sand handlers need to get moving quickly so the beach is in good enough shape to withstand any major storms that might hit South Florida during hurricane season. "We have a number of areas that are getting pretty close to critical," says Carlos Espinosa, director of Miami-Dade County's Department of Environmental Resources Management. "We need to be able to do this project within the next year."

Ros-Lehtinen, along with Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, wrote a letter last month to John Paul Woodley Jr., the Army's assistant secretary for civil works, complaining that the corps' bureaucratic review process could create very destructive consequences. "The safety of all coastal residents is too important to handle this matter as business as usual," they wrote.

One issue the corps is probably trying to thrash out is what the original provision meant by "available" sand. Beach renourishment is no small undertaking in Miami. Stevens estimates that the corps will need about 15 million cubic yards of sand to hit all the erosion hot spots along 13 miles of beach land. Ros-Lehtinen has put in a $3.5 million appropriations request to help cover the costs.

Many Florida officials contend that past corps renourishment efforts, which piped in sand from just off the coast, have largely exhausted offshore sources of sand. Meanwhile, other Florida beaches need local sand for their own renourishment projects. That leaves foreign sources in the Caribbean or Bahamas as the only cost-effective option, according to the Miami officials.

"Sand is a commodity, like you buy corn or minerals overseas," says Espinosa. "I think what we want is just for the corps to be able to put out a request that doesn't have any restrictions. In essence, what we're looking for here is an open market."

Ros-Lehtinen, for her part, sees the beach issue as a question of vital market protection: "The economic success of Miami is tied to the success of its beaches," she said after a tour of the coastline last month.

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