PortMiami plans to spend a grant from the Trump administration to create a $57 million fumigation facility designed to end a detour that tons of produce currently take on their way from Latin America to Miami grocery stores.
Spraying vegetables and fruit for pests costs more at PortMiami, which operates outdated fumigation equipment that requires treatment of one cargo container at a time. Rather than spend more for that tedious process, many fruit, vegetable and flower importers from Latin America send their cargo to Northeast ports, then truck the produce south to Miami.
“It could be Wilmington, it could be Philadelphia,” said Eddie Gonzalez, president of Seaboard Marine, one of the largest shipping companies operating in PortMiami. “It’s so costly.”
Miami-Dade County, which runs the port, expects to use the bulk of the $44 million grant just announced by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to help build the new fumigation facility about nine miles away at the county-owned Miami International Airport.
The grant application describes a 100,000-square-foot building that would be privately operated, with 80 loading bays and enough space to process about a quarter of the perishable cargo currently trucked into Florida from ports to the north.
“You’re going to get fresher produce in your grocery store,” said port director Juan Kuryla. Fumigating fruit and vegetables in the Northeast, then sending them by land to Miami “makes the product more expensive, and reduces the shelf life.”
The federal Transportation Department approved Miami-Dade for the largest portion of a new $280 million set of port grants, a category of funding that was a pet cause for Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican.
Before Democrats retook the House, Diaz-Balart was chairman of a subcommittee that oversees transportation spending, and he said he was surprised there wasn’t a budget line reserved to help counties like Miami-Dade pay for port construction.
“Without the money for the new fumigation warehouse, PortMiami would not have been able to stay competitive,” said Diaz-Balart said.
Port figures showed Miami receiving a small fraction of the perishable cargo that comes to the East Coast from South and Central America, meaning ships are sailing past South Florida to head elsewhere. While the Philadelphia port received about 137,000 containers in 2018, PortMiami processed just 12,195.
“Asparagus is a major challenge for Miami, since the shipments from Peru are one of the largest categories of produce requiring fumigation,” said Gonzalez, the Seaboard president. “While some asparagus still comes into PortMiami, shippers are paying more than they would sending the cargo north to Philadelphia. Florida is going to benefit, with the new fumigation facility. The cost of fumigation now is quite high.”
About $10 million of the grant is reserved for upgrading outdated drainage infrastructure to handle heavy rains at the port. Built in the 1990s, the current storm-water infrastructure was designed to handle the kind of severe storm that comes once every five years. The full $22 million upgrade Miami-Dade plans would target the kind of hurricane that comes every 25 years, according to grant documents.
“Sea level rise and climate change are making these improvements a more urgent necessity,” the county said in its application.
“We’re all about resiliency,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said after the event in an area of the port framed by stacked Seaboard containers. “We’re going to be spending the money that we need to make sure this port remains resilient. Too many jobs are dependent on this port.’’
The term-limited mayor is running in the Republican congressional primary to challenge freshman Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell for the 26th District seat. The county-owned port sits in the 27th congressional district, represented by freshman Democrat Donna Shalala, who also spoke at the event, as did Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Chao described the millions in federal dollars for a county facility as a way to bolster the local economy. It’s scheduled to open in 2023.
“Investing in ports is investing in prosperity for our communities,” Chao said. “Improving our ports will pay dividends in the future.”