BROOKSVILLE — An eleventh-hour discovery of contaminating petroleum products in the sandy bottom of the Hernando Beach channel may doom the long-planned dredging project there.
Blocked now in every direction, the county will have to scramble to find a way to save the project and the $6-million in state funds expected to dry up if the dredging doesn't happen soon.
A bevy of file-toting lawyers, concerned Hernando Beach residents and interested parties gathered at Brooksville City Hall on Wednesday morning for what was expected to be a three-day hearing to secure the permit to use the controversial Eagle Nest Drive site to dump the dredge spoils.
Just minutes into the proceeding before an administrative law judge, however, the county's attorney, Richard Brightman, announced the unexpected finding of oil and grease in the material to be dredged from the channel. That, he said, would make it impossible for the county to give testimony that all requirements had been met to secure the state permit for the site. He requested that the case be put on hold until the finding can be verified and more testing can be done.
"It's painful for me to make this request, your honor, but it's the right thing to do,'' Brightman said.
Amanda Bush, attorney for the state Department of Environmental Protection, the agency that had issued a notice that it intended to permit the site, said she could not in good faith testify that the permit should be issued. The agency would want more testing, she said.
So would Manuel LLC, the owner of the Eagle Nest property, according to lawyer Jake Varn. "If this has got something nasty in it, we don't want it on our property,'' he said.
The judge granted the request to cancel the hearing and said he wanted an update from the county within 60 days. By that time, the window of opportunity that county engineers have been saying exists for starting the project will close.
Meeting the county's mid March deadline to bid the project is "now highly unlikely,'' according to County Administrator David Hamilton.
While the hope has been that if the county couldn't secure a permit for the Eagle Nest site it could still fall back on an alternative site on Shoal Line Boulevard, that hope has now also been crushed. On Tuesday, Brooksville resident Neil F. Law III filed an objection to the alternative site, potentially tying it up in the same kind of lengthy hearing process canceled Wednesday morning on the Eagle Nest site.
The $9-million dredge project has dragged on in various incarnations for well over a dozen years. The current plan is to widen, deepen and lengthen the channel, which has become clogged and dangerous in recent years.
Wednesday's developments sent county officials in numerous directions, trying to determine how the dredge project got so far along without the petroleum contamination being discovered.
Hamilton planned a telephone conference with a top DEP official for today to ask about the agency's failures in the review process. He also plans to meet with county Public Works Director Charles Mixson on Friday to ask similar questions.
Mixson is on probation for a variety of infractions, including failure to complete the dredge project in a timely matter.
Having just been approved Tuesday as a division director with more responsibility as part of the county's reorganization, Mixson's future in that expanded job will be discussed during the Friday meeting, Hamilton said.
As Hamilton bluntly put it after the hearing cancellation, "I don't think you have to be a scientist'' to know that an area used by boats with motors might be a place to find oil and grease.
"Clearly someone missed something that should have been sought,'' he said.
Hamilton learned late Tuesday night of the test finding when Brightman called to tell him about it. The tests had been ordered by Brightman after his firm, recently hired by the county for the dredge project, reviewed the materials already produced to secure the permit and saw there were some things that needed a closer look.
According to Gregg Sutton, assistant county engineer and project manager on the dredge, sampling had been done on the spoils before, and all materials found were acceptable to the DEP.
The two latest samples by Brightman's firm were taken at the beginning of the channel and about halfway up the channel. They showed levels of the oil and grease at 53.4 parts per million and 47.1 parts per million. The DEP standard states that there can be no more than 5 parts per million.
"We have more work to do'' to get to the bottom of the issue of the contamination, Sutton said.
County Commission Chairman Dave Russell, who had helped secure the $6 million in state funding for the project when he was in the state House, expressed disappointment about the latest barricades blocking the much-needed dredging.
"I'm concerned that we're up against some pretty significant time constraints,'' he said.
Russell contacted state Rep. Robert Schenck and the office of state Sen. Mike Fasano on Wednesday, urging their support for keeping the state money available while Hernando County sorts out the latest issues.
"Now it's a matter of where do we go from here,'' he said.
Russell said all alternatives are on the table to move the project forward. If the Eagle Nest site can't be permitted, he said, another question to ask is whether the special filtering equipment that has been proposed for the Shoal Line site can filter out the petroleum-based substances in the spoil, making that the preferred site.
"We're down but we're not out yet,'' Russell said. "This project is of great importance.''
Residents near the Eagle Nest property who challenged that site were aware a new challenge had been filed on the alternative site on Shoal Line, but said they remained hopeful that the county will find a way to make the Shoal Line site work.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.