CLEARWATER — Bill Basore walks out to the end of his dock and plunges a 15-foot pole into Stevenson Creek. The tip of the pole sinks several feet into the chocolate-colored muck that lines the creek bed.
Basore pulls it out. It stinks.
He and his neighbors along the creek's estuary in north Clearwater are tired of waiting for it to be cleaned up. They've been waiting for years — some for decades. Because of an unexpected new delay with the cleanup project, they're going to have to keep waiting.
Stevenson Creek is one of Pinellas County's most polluted bodies of water. Rainwater from the creek's 6,000-acre watershed in Clearwater, Largo and Dunedin has carried silt, oil, pesticides, fertilizers and debris into the creek.
The creek flows into a 40-acre estuary, which empties into Clearwater Harbor near Sunset Point Road. Old-timers will tell you this estuary once teemed with life, but these days its redfish, mullet, snook, mussels, wading birds and aquatic plants are pretty much gone.
Boats can maneuver only at high tide. Low tide exposes a smelly muck.
In July, the Army Corps of Engineers began a massive dredging of the estuary. This had been in the works for more than a decade. Roughly 95,000 cubic yards of muck — about 19 million gallons — was to be pulled from the body of water.
But the work stopped in October and has been at a standstill since.
The reason: the Corps and its dredging contractor are embroiled in a dispute over just how toxic the creek is.
The contractor, SEEK Enterprises of Brandon, got the $4.7 million job to dredge the creek and haul the muck to a sludge farm that Clearwater owns in Hillsborough County. This was expected to take about nine months.
SEEK had finished less than 10 percent of the job when it stopped working on Oct. 2, the day that Clearwater's Marshall Street Sewage Treatment Plant spilled sewage into the creek.
"We had a small sewage overflow," said city engineering director Mike Quillen. "You have to report it, and you have to put up 'No swimming' signs until the water returns to a safe level. That lasted three days. Then testing showed that, whatever came out during the spill, the tide had taken care of it."
So the Corps wants its contractor back on the job.
"There's been no other spills at the treatment plant," Quillen said. "The Corps is saying, 'It's safe for you guys to get back to work.' "
But SEEK president Fred Streb says the company's tests have found that the creek remains highly contaminated with fecal coliform bacteria. In fact, he says the creek is layered with sewage sludge dating as far back as the 1950s.
The company says it needs more money to pay for the additional costs of working in hazardous waters, such as protective gear and training.
The two sides are in a standoff. The Corps of Engineers expects the company to fulfill the terms of its contract.
"The Corps has not identified any changed conditions in the water quality that would affect the contractor's ability to perform the work," said Corps spokesman Barry Vorse.
Clearwater and U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, have been pushing the Corps to do this dredging work for years. Young has secured funding for it twice.
Clearwater recently chipped in an extra $575,000 for the project in order to bolster the Corps' case that the necessary work is being fully funded.
Sewage to blame?
Back on the shore of Stevenson Creek, Bill Basore can't believe all this. He and his wife, Lorraine, have been on the creek for 20 years. They blame the Corps and Clearwater for this latest delay.
"It's getting delayed because the city of Clearwater keeps discarding human waste into the creek, and the Army Corps of Engineers refuses to recognize it," he said. "SEEK thought they were cleaning a creek, not a sewage system."
He points the finger at the Marshall Street sewage plant. And he suspects the government is hiding contamination by only testing the creek at high tide, when salt water is flowing into the estuary.
"If you go up the creek beyond the plant, you'll see shellfish and mussels in the mangroves," he said. "Down the creek from the plant, everything is dead."
Every day, millions of gallons of wastewater are treated at the plant, one of the city's three sewage treatment facilities.
Clearwater officials say their sewage plant is getting a bum rap.
Elliot Shoberg, the city's stormwater manager, says he can remember only two sewage spills from the plant in the last 10 years.
Rob Fahey, Clearwater's utilities engineering manager, said the plant's technology has improved significantly during its 40-year existence. "These plants provide an essential service," he said. "They have to exist."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.