PORT RICHEY — The city's long-suffering dredging project cleared a crucial hurdle — and then stumbled.
The state Department of Environmental Protection sent a letter Friday saying it was finally accepting the city's permit application to dredge 25 muck-filled canals.
After years of stalled progress and thousands of dollars spent on studies, officials were hopeful that the city would get the dredging permit in the next 90 days — with the help of a new engineering firm, PBS&J.
But during a conference call Monday, PBS&J terminated its contract with the city.
The firm's project director, Jeffrey R. Tabar, "cited their current workload and cited that Phase 1 of the 25 channels was essentially complete," City Manager Richard Reade said.
Reade said his conversation with Tabar was short: "You kind of know when you're being broken up with."
With the possibility of a permit finally within reach, some dredging advocates wonder where the departure of PBS&J leaves the project. The city still needs an engineering firm to answer any questions DEP might have about the permit application.
"I am disappointed, because they seemed to present themselves well," said Mike Latini, a member of the city's Port Authority Board. "They seemed to come off as if they could get the job done by taking that position. I was excited and hopeful."
Tabar did not return a call Tuesday for comment.
Tabar's firm took the reins of the dredging project in February from the LPA Group.
After spending $464,000 over the past two years and not receiving a single permit, city officials hoped PBS&J could spur the project along. The LPA Group helped the city obtain the application completion letter for the first 25 canals while city officials negotiated with PBS&J to handle the rest of the project.
But Reade said Tabar also cited the additional information required by DEP, and said he wasn't sure the city could obtain the two remaining permits for the four other canals.
Reade said it will be the City Council's job to pick a new consultant. He said they could choose Banks Engineering or Taylor Engineering, the other two firms recommended to the council after the LPA Group was removed.
Or the council could search for a new firm, Reade said.
Council member Phil Abts, who was part of the Monday conference call with Reade and Tabar, said PBS&J's decision came at a good time.
"I am glad they did this prior to taking the project on and not in the middle of it," he said. "If we were in the middle and they backed out, we would really be stuck. We've got 90 days to find a new consultant. This isn't a setback."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.