CLEARWATER — There's a layer of chocolate-colored sludge on the bottom of Stevenson Creek. In some spots, the stuff is several feet deep.
In the creek's 40-acre estuary in north Clearwater, boats can maneuver only at high tide. Low tide exposes the smelly muck.
Homeowners who live along the creek have been hoping that a multimillion-dollar federal dredging project would clean up this polluted body of water. Some have been waiting for decades.
But now the dredging is in limbo once again. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of the project, has fired a second dredging contractor from the job. It fired the first dredging contractor last year after a lengthy dispute.
Now the corps is looking for a third contractor, and creekside residents are growing frustrated and pessimistic.
"I just want the creek dredged, and so does everybody else in my neighborhood. But it's at a standstill," said Bill Basore, who has lived along the creek for 20 years. "I can understand one contractor going down, but this is two now."
The second contractor on the job, Paul Howard Construction of Greensboro, N.C., started dredging the creek earlier this year but ran into problems complying with environmental regulations, local officials say.
The corps won't say why it fired the contractor. It is now in talks with the firm that holds Paul Howard's performance bond, which is essentially an insurance policy in case the contractor is unable to finish the job.
"The contract with Paul Howard has been terminated. We are currently working with the bonding company to determine a path forward for the project," said corps spokeswoman Amanda Ellison.
Paul Howard Construction couldn't be reached for comment by phone or email for the past several weeks.
Neighbors, officials must wait and see
Stevenson Creek is one of Pinellas County's most polluted bodies of water. Rainwater from its 6,000-acre watershed in Clearwater, Largo and Dunedin has carried silt, oil, pesticides, fertilizers and debris into the creek.
The creek flows into an estuary that empties into Clearwater Harbor near Sunset Point Road. Old-timers say this estuary once teemed with life, but these days its redfish, mullet, snook, mussels, wading birds and aquatic plants are pretty much gone.
In mid 2010, the corps began a massive dredging of the estuary. About 19 million gallons of muck were to be pulled from the body of water.
But the corps and its first contractor on the job, SEEK Enterprises of Brandon, got embroiled in a dispute over just how polluted the creek is and how much money it would cost to do the job in contaminated waters.
SEEK was fired. Its president, Fred Streb, has been in a legal dispute with the corps ever since. "I have filed five wrongful termination claims," he said. "I feel sorry for Paul Howard."
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 estuary dredged. A combination of federal and city tax money is paying for the dredging.
Young has secured federal funding for the project twice now, but Streb claims there isn't enough money budgeted to really do the work.
Young's office hasn't responded to several phone calls and emails regarding Stevenson Creek.
For now, Clearwater officials can only wait to see what happens next.
"The bonding company is interviewing contractors. The corps has said that they'll have a say-so in approving a new contractor," said Clearwater engineering director Mike Quillen. "We're holding our breath and hoping they pick a contractor that knows how to do a dredge project this time."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151.