On a rain-drenched Friday morning, not one boat can be seen in the channel leading from Hernando Beach to the Gulf of Mexico. The air is silent, save for the diesel engine powering a large shovel that is busy scooping sand and rock onto a barge.
Even in inclement weather, work on the Hernando Beach channel dredge goes on. Workers at the spoil site along Shoal Line Boulevard watch over the massive conveyor system that processes 1.5 million gallons of slurry each day. It's a slow, consistent process that marches on six days a week, said Bob Carpenter, chief executive of Tampa-based BCPeabody, which took over the dredge operation in March.
"We're making very good progress," Carpenter said as he slogged through the mud on his way to inspect the machinery. "We're right where we're supposed to be."
A lot of people might find that hard to believe. Beset with a history of delays, cost overruns, fired contractors and political wrangling, the dredge project has drawn its fair share of skepticism over its 16-year lifespan.
Carpenter said he doesn't concern himself with the critics. Instead, he tries to concentrate on the massive job his company was hired to complete by Dec. 31.
He's certain he is going to make the deadline.
But getting there hasn't been easy. Carpenter, whose company will earn $8.456 million from the job, said it didn't take long for him to realize that he and his staff had to be innovative to solve problems they never expected to encounter.
"If it was just digging, we'd be done by now," he said. "But I'm lucky to have people here who are problem solvers."
The job of excavating 77,000 cubic yards of sand, sediment and rock required snaking thousands of feet of 12-inch flexible pipe beneath roadways and bridges in order to connect it to the hydraulic system designed to suck up debris and carry it to the processing site along Shoal Line.
One of the greatest challenges BCPeabody faced was meeting the state Department of Environmental Protection's exacting water quality standards.
Water returned to the channel must be virtually silt-free. To accomplish that, Carpenter's company has set up an elaborate system that begins with separating sand and sediment from the water and pumping it into massive ponds where the remaining solids can settle.
The water is then pumped through a complex series of filters that are constantly monitored. Once cleaned, the water is returned to the channel via another pipe.
Although he admits there were some early problems with the clarity of the water returned to the channel, Carpenter said that constant refinement of the filtration system has enabled the company to exceed DEP standards by 50 percent much of the time.
"The water actually returns to the channel cleaner than when it came out," Carpenter said.
In addition to the hydraulic dredge, BCPeabody is employing a new piece of equipment — a 5-cubic-yard mechanical dredge to remove the solid limestone from the channel that has plagued boaters for decades.
Once the dredge is finished, the 60-foot-wide trapezoid channel will be capable of handling boats with up to 6-foot draft, and safety on the busy waterway will be improved significantly.
Hernando County transportation services director Susan Goebel said she is pleased with the progress that Carpenter's company has made in a short time.
"They've been good at keeping us informed on the project," she said. "The pace has really picked up lately, and that's good to see."
Carpenter said he realizes that his company's handling of the dredge project is under close scrutiny, and he doesn't mind. He believes the end product will speak for itself.
"I know people in the community have been waiting a long time for this to get done," Carpenter said. "I don't think they'll be disappointed."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]