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New tug-of-war for Hernando Beach Channel dredge project

BROOKSVILLE — Ordered by the county to resume dredging of the Hernando Beach Channel, Orion Dredging Services LLC began returning equipment to the scene Wednesday.

But don't blink; it may be gone again soon.

By the end of the day, Orion's spokesman said the company would likely remove the equipment in the coming days.

The developments are just the latest confusing turn as county officials try to get the dredge started again.

Orion notified the county on Tuesday that by complying with the county's recent order to resume work, the company would be violating state law, running up the county's already-inflated bill and violating the Army Corps of Engineers permit for the project.

Meanwhile, the county's lawyers are scrambling before a Friday deadline to reach an agreement with the owner of the rejected site for storing dredge spoils to avoid potential legal action that would further delay the snake-bit dredging project.

Workers were assembling the dredge equipment and the barge to place it back in the water on Wednesday morning as residents called county officials to report that Orion was remobilizing.

With county permission, Orion removed equipment from the water and from the county's wastewater treatment plant location on Shoal Line Boulevard in June as all parties awaited approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection on a modified dredging permit.

The dredge was stalled in January when Orion was unable to remove sufficient sediment from the dredged spoils to comply with the old permit. For months and through disputes between Orion and county's dredge consultant, Halcrow, county officials worked on a solution.

That solution, which adds settling ponds and the use of a coagulant to pull more sediment out of the water, was approved by the DEP, and several weeks ago the DEP notified the county that a modified permit had been approved.

If no one challenges the permit by Friday, work on the dredge can begin again.

Then, last week, Orion sent the county a change order that would increase the firm's $5 million contract by another $7.8 million. The project's total budget is $9 million. The county responded by ordering Orion back to work.

In Orion's Tuesday letter, company officials assert that following the county's directive to "resume dredging operations and to fully perform under the contract documents'' would require Orion to violate the law by running afoul of the revised permit.

That would also jeopardize the county's separate permit with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Orion officials also maintained that moving equipment back to the site before the new ponds are built, which could take two months, would add to the county's cost. They indicated that work on the ponds would happen only after the county approves the change order.

County Administrator David Hamilton said Wednesday that county attorneys were still discussing the issues related to the possible permit challenge. Also, when interim public works director Susan Goebel returns from furlough next week, she will sit with other county officials to help determine how to address the change order.

In the meantime, Hamilton said the county has been talking with Orion officials so they know what equipment needs to be on site and what activities can begin to take place without running into any legal questions.

One of the agreements reached would allow Orion to again remove the dredge equipment that just arrived on Wednesday, according to Orion spokesman Chris Dealmeida.

The equipment was only brought to the scene to comply with the county's order, Dealmeida said, and keeping it there when it will be weeks or longer before actual dredging can resume will be costly to the county.

"Basically it's like a taxicab. The meter is running,'' he said. "There's no sense in the county running up its bill.''

While he said he recognized that residents in the area have been waiting anxiously to see the dredge project get done, keeping the equipment there doesn't help if it can't be used.

Still, Dealmeida said that Orion is going to be at work on the site and has not abandoned the project.

"We want to fulfill our obligations and our contract," he said, "and we will."

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

New tug-of-war for Hernando Beach Channel dredge project 08/25/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 25, 2010 8:44pm]
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