CLEARWATER — Just how dirty is Stevenson Creek? And is a city sewage plant the cause?
Those are the questions being raised as a dredging project on the polluted creek has ground to a halt.
Last summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a long-delayed dredging of the creek's 40-acre estuary in north Clearwater, which empties into Clearwater Harbor. But the work stopped last fall and has been at a standstill ever since.
That's because the Corps and its dredging contractor are arguing over just how polluted the creek is and how much money it will cost to do the job in contaminated waters. They remain at odds and appear to be headed for court.
The contractor, SEEK Enterprises of Brandon, says the creek bottom is layered with sewage sludge that has accumulated over decades. When it hired an Oldsmar lab to test the creek water, the tests found high levels of fecal coliform and other bacteria.
The Corps expects SEEK to carry out its $4.7 million contract and dredge 19 million gallons of muck from the creek. But SEEK president Fred Streb says the Corps is driving him out of business by being unreasonable about the extra cost of protective gear, training and the longer time frame needed to do the work.
"We were never made aware of the fact that the creek is contaminated. It significantly changes the scope of the project," said Streb, a former Corps employee. "I'm heavily financially invested in this. I've spent everything I've saved in my whole life and it's gone."
As for the pollution, some homeowners along Stevenson Creek point to Clearwater's decades-old Marshall Street sewage treatment plant, which discharges treated wastewater into the creek.
But Clearwater says that these days, the plant produces water that is so clean that the effluent actually improves the quality of the creek.
"If the Marshall Street plant wasn't there," said Clearwater utilities director Tracy Mercer, "Stevenson Creek would be dirtier than it is right now."
This creek is one of Pinellas County's most polluted bodies of water.
One reason: Rainwater from its 6,000-acre watershed carries silt, oil, fertilizer and debris into the creek.
Another reason: A decade ago, a government study found that the Marshall Street plant was the source of nearly half the nitrogen and phosphorus in the creek. Those nutrients feed algae that cloud the water, then die and become muck.
Clearwater engineers now dispute that study. They say pollution in the creek comes from other sources like stormwater runoff and septic tanks. They have data from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection saying the plant isn't polluting.
"To point to that plant and say it's the cause of all the creek's problems, it's just ludicrous," said Rob Fahey, Clearwater's utilities engineering manager. "It's an easy target."
But the Marshall Street sewage plant, the city's oldest, has a long and notorious history. Some kind of sewer plant has been at that location since the 1930s. By the early 1990s, residents of the North Greenwood neighborhood complained that its foul smell and its spills had been disrupting their lives for decades.
The treatment plant was a worse problem before 1992, when it was upgraded. Some residents along the creek suspect that it's still a source of pollution. "They just deny everything," said Bill Basore.
The DEP threatened Clearwater with fines in 2001 for violating water quality standards at the Marshall Street plant, but the city fixed that problem.
DEP records show the plant has had four spills of sewage or partly treated wastewater since 2007, but the city says those had little effect on the creek.
"The Marshall Street plant is a lot better than it used to be. But until they upgraded it, they had a lot of leaks," said Mike Foley, who has lived beside Stevenson Creek since 1977. He fought Clearwater for years in the 1980s to kill the city's plan to pave the creek with concrete.
"You can see scum or foam on the water from time to time, but not as frequently as you used to," he said. "What's accumulated in the creek is the accumulation from decades."
A nasty surprise?
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hired SEEK Enterprises to dredge nearly 100,000 cubic yards of muck and sand and silt from Stevenson Creek's estuary. Clearwater and the federal government are paying for the project.
The contractor started the nine-month job in August but stopped in October after the Marshall Street plant spilled 45,000 gallons of partly treated wastewater into the creek.
Until then, the dredging workers had worn jeans and T-shirts.
SEEK's president, Streb, says that a week later, after the spill had cleared up, the Corps told them to return to work wearing protective gear like chest waders, rubber gloves, hip boots and face shields.
He says the Corps told them that readings of fecal coliform bacteria in the creek had fallen back to their normal "ambient levels" of 1,000 to 1,400 parts per milliliter of water. The safety standard for a recreational waterway is 200; any reading above that typically means that beaches get closed.
"Now they tell us," Streb said. "I'm not a remediation contractor. I don't work with contaminated water."
He says his contract simply describes Stevenson Creek as "an outstanding Florida water body" and doesn't mention any pollution. He says the Corps is unwilling to pay extra, and that it's not just a matter of putting on waterproof gear.
"I can't put people in hip boots and face masks and expect them to work more than 30 minutes at a time. The efficiency of the crew is cut in half," Streb said. "Our opinion is, the job is materially different than advertised. Everybody is going to blame the contractor. But the Corps has been totally uncooperative since Day 1."
The Corps has a different view.
"The Corps of Engineers disagrees with the contractor's representations of the facts surrounding the terms and conditions of the contract," said Corps spokeswoman Amanda Ellison in a written response. "We continue to work diligently to expedite the completion of this project for the citizens of Clearwater."
Streb hired an Oldsmar lab, Southern Analytical Laboratories, to test the creek water in late November. Its results show wildly varying and occasionally high levels of fecal coliform and enterococci bacteria.
In one spot, the fecal coliform level was 47 parts per milliliter; in another, it was 5,700.
However, Clearwater officials dismiss this as unimportant.
"Those numbers can go up and down frequently, depending on what's in the immediate area. Rain can have a major effect," said David Porter, wastewater manager for Clearwater. "Whatever it is, it's not coming from us.”
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.