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Hernando County nears final payout to dredge contractor

BROOKSVILLE — The small rock sitting on the desk might seem inconsequential, but not to the desk's occupant, Susan Goebel-Canning.

The county's environmental services director plucked it from the spoils of Hernando County's ultimate infinity project, as the past county administrator called it. It symbolizes the journey Goebel-Canning has taken professionally in the two years and three months since former administrator David Hamilton put her in the role of "dredge lady.''

On Tuesday, the Hernando Beach Channel dredge might finally drop its infinity nickname. If the County Commission approves, the county could, at last, bring the job to an end — 17-plus years after it was first conceived — by paying the final $464,781.95 owed to contractor BCPeabody.

"Every day, I've been living life as the dredge lady,'' Goebel-Canning said last week. "Finally I'm seeing the light. I'm so looking forward to the board on the 10th saying that it's done.''

Even though the project presented challenges at every corner, requiring a change in method on the actual dredge operation and modification of the state permit along the way, BCPeabody chief executive officer Robert Carpenter said he doesn't regret bidding on the complex project.

"I'm glad we were able to do what we said we were going to do,'' Carpenter said. "We're just glad to have been a part of putting a lingering problem to bed.''

Weeks ago, BCPeabody and subcontractor crews pulled up their barges, carting some away and floating others into the Gulf of Mexico toward their respective homes. Excavators were packed up and trucked away, too.

The welcome demobilization came after months of inconvenience. Loaded barges had blocked passage down the channel, and the deafening churning of the equipment had destroyed the peace and quiet for neighbors, day and night.

Boaters in Hernando Beach and surrounding areas were, after the long wait, finally able to enjoy a 3-mile channel that is 60 feet wide and 6 foot deep at mean low-water levels.

Independent and county surveys during March confirmed that a deeper, straighter, longer and wider channel was finally done.

In the days that followed, crews worked to finish up issues on a punch list: clearing a couple of side canals, rebuilding the seawall at the spoils dropoff site, and restoring lots and pavement near that site and the Coast Guard Auxiliary building on Calienta Street.

Late last week, Goebel-Canning was awaiting releases from several of the property owners who have claimed damage from the dredge operation. Those releases were from owners who had their repairs completed by BCPeabody or its dredging subcontractor, Konga Marine Logistics.

Another half-dozen residents have filed claims for damages with the insurance companies of BCPeabody and Konga and are in various states of resolution. Goebel-Canning said the county cannot hold up payment to the contractor over those unresolved insurance claims.

One resident with seawall damage, Phil Rubin, has put the county on notice that he might go to court to ensure his issues are resolved. Last week, the county forwarded to Rubin a letter from the county's insurance carrier, Travelers.

"As you know, Hernando County contracted this dredging project to BCPeabody as the general contractor. BCPeabody in turn subcontracted the boat activity for the movement of material to Konga Marine Logistics,'' wrote senior technical specialist Earl Spencer.

"The county did not actively participate or have control of the project operation in any such manner. As such, the county should not be liable for the alleged negligent acts of the general contractor and/or subcontractor,'' he wrote.

Richard and Betty Watkins have spent months chasing the dredging firms' insurance companies and adjusters, trying to resolve their damage issues. They intend to ask the County Commission on Tuesday why others had their seawalls repaired while their claim has been denied.

Betty Watkins called the entire situation "a shame" and wants to urge the commission, as residents have done in the past, to hold up making the last payment to the contractor until all damage issues are resolved.

"With everything still torn up,'' she said, "I don't think it is done.''

Even as the dredge project ends, the residual legal actions promise to keep talk of the project alive for some time to come.

The county's original dredge company, Orion Dredging Services, sued the county after the county found Orion in breach of its contract. Orion had been shut down by the state for being unable to sufficiently filter dredge spoils.

The county counter-sued.

Then last week, county attorneys filed a new claim that pointed the first fingers of blame at the consulting engineer the county hired to design the project and obtain the permits, Halcrow.

The court has tentatively slated a jury trial on the lawsuit for May 2013 if the issues cannot be resolved.

County Commissioner Dave Russell, who was instrumental in helping get the $6 million state grant to fund a portion of the dredge project, said he is hopeful that one of the outcomes of the litigation is that the county receives money from Orion or its bonding company for not completing the job.

That's because the price tag for the work has caused grief for the commission, which has had to tap into millions of dollars from its judicial center fund and other funds to pay the bills. Although the final cost has not been tallied, the last total released was $15.1 million, with $8.7 million of that going to BCPeabody.

For Russell, who has monitored the dredge project for most of its life — through environmental, financial and legal challenges — the end is bittersweet.

"I know the entire board will breathe a sigh of relief that the project is done. For me personally, we were able to accomplish the dredge,'' he said. "I am not pleased with the amount of time it took or the amount of money.'' He wasn't alone in that sentiment.

"I think there are a lot of citizens in this county that feel as I do. We're thrilled that the dredge has been completed and we have a navigable waterway," said Commissioner Jeff Stabins.

"But was it worth the price we paid? I don't know that.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Hernando County nears final payout to dredge contractor 04/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 7, 2012 12:51pm]
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