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On Hernando Beach Channel dredge, it's better to talk than to duck

Millions of dollars spent on the Hernando Beach Channel dredge may as well have been scattered over the Gulf of Mexico for all the good the money has done. A baby born when the project was proposed could have graduated from high school by now. And after all the talking and plan writing and abortive attempts at digging, only about one-quarter of the work has been completed.

So it's no surprise that county staffers don't like talking to reporters about the dredge. I wouldn't either.

But talk they should.

First of all, it's their duty to taxpayers, the providers of all those misspent millions. And if that doesn't persuade them to be more forthcoming, maybe this will: People will judge them more kindly because of it.

Explain what's going on. Do it thoroughly and patiently. Even if the news is bad — and with the dredge it almost always is — reporters and the public will appreciate your openness and honesty.

Remember also that aired wounds are less likely to fester. In other words, doling out information sparingly creates suspicion among journalists, who are generally wired to think the worst. And nobody's accusing you of violating open records laws — just pointing out that ducking behind the barricades doesn't help anybody.

For an example of what not to do, look at a story that Times reporter Barbara Behrendt wrote two weeks ago, one that started by stating as fact that the dredge is cursed and then backing it up. The project was far behind schedule, threatening the delivery of $6 million in state funds, she wrote. Dredging contractor BCPeabody of Tampa had already received nearly half of its contracted payments, yet had completed only 11 percent of the job.

And, finally, BCPeabody had pretty much decided to start over, abandoning the high-tech approach of sucking sand from the gulf floor hydraulically in favor of just digging it out with heavy equipment.

The story raised a lot of other questions, and Behrendt sent 11 follow-ups to Susan Goebel, the county's transportation services director — and received a lot of terse, unhelpful, one-line replies.

I tried the following week, going through a county spokesperson, as directed, and got the same treatment. Describing every back and forth would only lead us into a quagmire of dreary dredge-related terms, so I'll just tell you that my suspicions weren't addressed until Friday — and most of them in a conversation with BCPeabody president Bob Carpenter.

Carpenter's entire plan, with a tube depositing hydraulically pumped spoil behind earthen berms, had seemed to revolve around keeping silt and other debris out of the water. Isn't the new approach, I asked him, creating massive plumes of the stuff?

No. The state Department of Environmental Protection requires his company to drape heavy underwater curtains around the digging site. His crews can't move on until the debris has settled, though this happens fairly quickly and the work is progressing faster than before.

The best the county was able to do to answer the question was refer me to a copy of the 24-page DEP permit that briefly mentions "floating turbidity barriers."

I also wondered what the use of heavy equipment meant for the county's deal with the Manuel family. After changing earlier plans to put dredge spoil on the family's coastal property, the county agreed to provide cash compensation and 40,000 cubic yards of fill.

If the stuff now being dredged is a sloppy mix of rock, silt and sand, I asked Goebel, where would that fill come from?

From the sand the county had bought so BCPeabody could build those berms that were no longer needed. And how much did that dirt for the berms originally cost the county? About $339,000, including the cost of county labor to haul it, Goebel responded — fairly promptly, I have to admit.

That price reminded me that Goebel's predecessor, Charles Mixson, had given away tons of fill to contractors a few years ago.

What if the county had stockpiled it instead? Would it have had enough sand to build those berms without spending all that money?

"I am not aware of any fill being given away since I have started with the county," Goebel said. "As to before then, I have no personal knowledge."

Well, could you find out, please? Because we're paying for this cursed thing.

On Hernando Beach Channel dredge, it's better to talk than to duck 08/13/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 13, 2011 10:08am]
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