CLEARWATER — You can see the salt all over Richard Barnes' yard. On the long swaths of dead brown grass, there are salt crystals littering the ground.
Barnes says the federal government killed his yard. Specifically, he blames his dead grass on spills from a work site next door. The site was recently being used by a contractor who was dredging Stevenson Creek in north Clearwater for the Army Corps of Engineers.
Barnes' problem provides a clue as to why that contractor was fired in December. The dredging contractor was the second in two years to be fired from the troubled multimillion-dollar federal project. The corps says it's trying to line up a third contractor to dredge the polluted creek, but it has yet to do so.
Meanwhile, Richard Barnes has a dead lawn and no answers. He wonders whether the grass will ever grow back, and whether the recent influx of water onto his family's property has undermined their home's foundation. And he believes that the corps is blowing him off, ignoring his concerns.
"We always had a beautiful, lush lawn. We used to have to mow this yard every week," Barnes said. "The lawn was so thick and the grass was so soft. Now it just looks like hell."
The Barnes family has lived for decades in a simple house on Claire Drive on the north side of Stevenson Creek. Just to the north and uphill from their home, there's an industrial lot that was used as a "dewatering site" during much of last year's creek dredging.
Crews pulled tens of thousands of gallons of silt and sludge from the bottom of Stevenson Creek's 40-acre estuary, which empties into Clearwater Harbor near Sunset Point Road. They brought the muck to the dewatering site, where they separated water from the sediment. Then they disposed of the gunk they scooped from the creek, hauling it away.
The dewatering site, which is next to a Clearwater fire station on Overbrook Avenue, has a concrete retaining wall around it and a liner underneath it to keep the muck from escaping.
But last summer, the Barnes family started seeing runoff from the site pooling in their yard, killing their grass. The family says corps officials at the scene told them there was a leak in the liner.
Records from the state Department of Environmental Protection confirm this.
"Representatives of the Corps have documented that there are holes through the pavement of the dewatering cells," says a letter that DEP sent to the corps in June. "In addition, it has been determined that the liner of the stormwater pond is not completely sealed."
The grass in Barnes' yard never grew back. A tree in the yard died.
The dredging contractor, Paul Howard Construction of Greensboro, N.C., was fired. The company's phone number is now disconnected.
Barnes says nothing has happened for months and his inquiries get directed to a corps attorney who won't tell him anything. He didn't know the contractor had been fired until he read it in the Clearwater & North Pinellas Times. He'd like to sue, but says he can't find a lawyer who will take the case.
The corps says it's taking the situation seriously.
"The corps has been in contact with Mr. Barnes concerning his property on several occasions," its spokeswoman Amanda Ellison said Friday. "We are currently investigating the situation further to ensure that his questions and concerns are addressed."
As for Paul Howard Construction, she said, "the contractor was failing to comply with FDEP permit requirements to hydrologically isolate the dewatering site."
The corps in still in talks with the firm that holds Paul Howard Construction's performance bond, which is essentially an insurance policy in case the contractor is unable to finish the job.
Dredging contractors looking for work have been calling the Times in an attempt to learn who is the bonding company. But the corps won't share that information.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.