CLEARWATER — It took more than a decade for the government to finally start dredging up the tons of muck deposited on the bottom of Stevenson Creek. Now the work has stopped and become stuck in a bureaucratic limbo, although it might get kick-started soon.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has fired its contractor on the $4.7 million dredging job, leaving residents along the polluted creek to wonder what happens next.
The corps and the contractor, SEEK Enterprises of Brandon, have for months been embroiled in a dispute over just how toxic the creek is and how much it will cost to dredge it. They also dispute whether the corps gave SEEK adequate warning about any contamination in the water.
The corps has decided to move on, terminating SEEK's contract. This week, corps officials will meet with the company that issued SEEK's performance bond, which is essentially an insurance policy that protects the government should the contractor be unable to finish the job. They'll discuss how to proceed, officials said.
"We are currently working with the bonding company to determine the path forward for the project," said corps spokeswoman Amanda Ellison. "The corps is exploring all options to complete the work at Stevenson Creek."
Over the course of decades, stormwater runoff from heavily paved Clearwater, Largo and Dunedin has carried silt, oil, fertilizer and debris into the creek. Studies also have found that an old city sewage plant used to leak nitrogen and phosphorus into the water.
Creekside residents, the city of Clearwater and U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, have been pushing for years to get the creek's 40-acre estuary dredged. As it is now, boats can maneuver though the estuary only at high tide. Low tide exposes a creek bottom of smelly muck.
A combination of federal and city tax money is paying for the dredging work. Young has secured federal funding for the project twice now.
"The congressman still believes this project will get done. It's just taking longer than he had hoped," said Young's chief of staff, Harry Glenn.
It's not clear yet how long it will take. Glenn said the corps and the bonding company will discuss three options:
• The bonding company finds a new contractor, hands the contractor over to the corps, and pays the corps for the cost of finishing the work.
• The bonding company takes over the contract, hires a contractor and manages the job itself.
• The company asks the corps to find its own contractor, and the company pays for any increased cost.
"They pay in any case," Glenn said. "Funding is not the issue here."
The previous contractor disputes that.
SEEK Enterprises originally got the $4.7 million contract to dredge 19 million gallons of muck from the estuary, which empties into Clearwater Harbor. The company started dredging last summer but stopped last fall, saying the creek was more polluted than it had been led to believe.
SEEK president Fred Streb says the corps is driving his small company out of business by being unreasonable about the extra cost of protective gear, training and the longer time frame needed to do the work.
"They never disclosed that the creek is contaminated," Streb said. "Under the current conditions, it's impossible to meet the permit requirements."
Both Streb and Glenn say the federal government has about reached the limit of what it can spend on this dredging project, under the terms of the federal clean water program that's funding it.
"The corps is out of money, the city's out of money, and they can't afford to do this job right," Streb said.
However, Clearwater officials point out that, shortly after the dredging stopped, the city chipped in an extra $575,000 to bolster the corps' case that the work is being fully funded.
At this point, SEEK and the corps appear to be headed for court. But officials say the dredging can resume with a new contractor while the SEEK dispute is still going on.
"We want to get out of the quagmire and move forward with the completion of the project. I think everyone is frustrated with the time frame that this has taken," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. "I'm pleased the corps has terminated the contract and now will appoint a new contractor — hopefully one that can expedite the process."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.