CLEARWATER — U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young appears to be pretty peeved at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over a troublesome creek dredging project in north Clearwater that has been stalled by one problem after another.
For more than a decade, the congressman and the city of Clearwater have been pushing the corps to dredge the polluted, muck-filled Stevenson Creek estuary. Young, R-Indian Shores, says he has secured federal funding for the job twice.
But the long-delayed project has run into yet another setback, and its future is uncertain.
The corps recently settled with one of the two dredging companies that it has fired from this snake-bitten job over the past couple of years. The settlement has burned through all the federal money earmarked for the creek, leaving the city holding the bag and responsible for cost overruns.
Clearwater, the congressman and the corps are all struggling to get the dredging project restarted.
"It is with the greatest of frustration that I write you again to share my utter disbelief and the disbelief of the people I represent in Clearwater, Florida," begins a letter that Young wrote last week to Jo Ellen Darcy, the Army's assistant secretary for public works.
"After 14 years of planning and almost three years of actual work on the project, the restoration of Stevenson Creek remains just 20 percent complete."
Young is requesting to meet again with Darcy, who met with him about this project last summer. In the meantime, Young is to meet Thursday in Washington, with Army Col. Alan Dodd, commander of the corps district that includes Tampa Bay.
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 and fertilizers into the creek. Low tide exposes a smelly muck on the creek bottom.
The creek flows into a 40-acre estuary that empties into Clearwater Harbor. In 2010, the corps hired a contractor to dredge about 19 million gallons of muck from the estuary.
The corps later fired that contractor, SEEK Enterprises of Brandon, after the two sides got into a dispute over just how polluted the creek was and how much it would cost to dredge it.
SEEK filed a wrongful termination claim. Now it and the corps have settled for an undisclosed amount.
"My company did nothing wrong. You sign off on a settlement not necessarily because they're right, but because you can't afford to fight the federal government anymore," said SEEK's president, Fred Streb. "I feel bad for the residents of Clearwater. This has cost them millions, and they've got nothing to show for it."
In December, the corps fired a second contractor on the dredging job who had run into problems complying with environmental regulations. The corps started talks with that contractor's bonding company about getting the job finished, but those talks don't appear to have gone anywhere.
The corps, as is its practice, has little to say to the public about any of this. "The corps is continuing with the project," said its spokeswoman, Amanda Ellison.
A $1 million tab
At this point, federal spending on the project has reached its limit. The dredging job is being funded through a federal program for aquatic ecosystem restoration, which caps the federal government's share at $5 million per job.
Clearwater's original share of the cost was nearly $2.7 million. The city is paying for 100 percent of the cost overruns. So project delays and additional legal and engineering fees have forced the city to spend another $570,000 so far. The settlement may cost it more.
"The corps has reached a settlement with one of the contractors. But because it's already expended its $5 million, that settlement cost falls on the city," said Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos. "Everybody's trying to figure out a way around that."
This irritates Young.
"To add insult to injury," the congressman wrote to the corps, "I recently learned that the corps' local partner on the project, the city of Clearwater, may be responsible for more than a $1 million payment to the first contractor on the project."
"The Army Corps of Engineers selected the contractor and subsequently terminated that contractor. Yet the city is being told it will be responsible for payment to the contractor. It is unclear to me why the corps should not be responsible for these costs."
Clearwater's City Council voted last week for a federal lobbying package that seeks more money to dredge the creek. The city is seeking to get the $5 million federal spending limit for this kind of job raised to $10 million. And Young is looking to get the project reclassified so it's eligible for more federal money.
"The corps has done so many wonderful things with renourishing the beaches and our dredging in Clearwater Harbor," said City Council member Bill Jonson. "It's just like this has got the little black cloud over it. And how do we get out from under that cloud and get it done?"
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.