State environmental officials have warned the owners of the SunCruz casino boat that they are committing "possible violations of the law" by tearing up long stretches of sea grass off the coastline of Pasco and Hernando counties.
The sea grass damage could make the casino boat's owner, Port Richey Casino Inc., subject to penalties of up to $10,000, according to the letter signed by state Department of Environmental Protection district director Deborah Getzoff.
But according to the company's attorney, the DEP is blaming the wrong boat.
"Port Richey Casino's vessels do not scar the bottom," attorney A. Brian Albritton said Thursday. "They do not hit the bottom. … We do not admit to a violation, and my client does not know of a violation."
However, he said, company executives will be happy to meet with DEP officials to "talk about measures to alleviate their concerns" about the sea grass beds, Albritton said.
Scientists mapping the 600,000 acres of sea grass beds off the Pasco-Hernando coastline first discovered the damage last year. They spotted deep scars in the ocean bottom that are 12 feet wide and up to 3,000 feet long. Some of the damage occurred 8 miles offshore and some was closer, just 4 miles offshore.
In March, state investigators took aerial photos that showed the SunCruz casino boat churning through those same sea grass beds where the scars had been found. The DEP letter cited that March flight.
Sea grass beds filter pollution out of the water and form a nursery and feeding ground for a variety of marine species. The sea grass beds that may have been damaged by SunCruz are part of the largest and most pristine stretches of sea grass in the country, biologists say.
Scientists say those sea grass beds, which start just north of Anclote Key at the Pinellas-Pasco county line and wrap around the Big Bend area to just south of Tallahassee, are one of the state's crown jewels.
The damaged portions of those beds will likely not recover for at least a decade, especially the parts that were covered in slow-growing turtle grass.
In 1999, the DEP sued the SunCruz operation in Port Richey, alleging propellers were gouging holes in the Pithlachascotee River's bed as the ship headed to sea.
The casino boat now stays several miles offshore, and lighter shuttle boats taxi gamblers to and from land. The new damage done to the sea grass beds appears to be occurring where the shuttle boats meet the casino boat.
Albritton said that the area where the DEP found damage had been used as a mooring area for large vessels long before the SunCruz boat began using it. So the damage spotted there may have been caused by some other company, he said.