Residents decry Hernando Beach Channel dredge: It's a nightmare

HERNANDO BEACH — Bob Carpenter rested his hands against the lectern and grinned.

"We're 99 percent sure you're going to have a Christmas present with substantial completion," he told the Hernando County Commission on Tuesday. "It's going to take something dramatic … why we wouldn't finish now."

That was good news. Carpenter owns BCPeabody, the county's contractor on the Hernando Beach Channel dredge. For years, commissioners have obsessed over the same subjects when they discussed the issue: Meet the deadline. Stay on budget.

The "mission," as Carpenter has called the project, is nearing its end. Smiles lined the commission chambers.

Twenty miles away and six days earlier, Richard and Betty Watkins stepped into their back yard and stared across a small, residential canal. Their two-story home on Gulf Coast Drive sits at the project's ground zero, a stone's throw from where barges offload tons of material that excavators dig from the channel floor.

The Watkinses call the project their "nightmare," and they're not alone.

People who live here say the dredge has waged more of an emotional, physical and financial toll on them than they ever could have imagined. Still, after months of emails, phone calls and complaints to anyone they could reach, the residents say it seems no one — not county employees, commissioners or the contractor — cares.

Because the deafening noise persists 24 hours a day, seven days a week, many residents say they only sleep a few hours each night. Some say the dredge conditions have made them ill.

Dozens if not hundreds of times, the neighbors say, dredge employees have violated the rules governing the project. Also, they say, the multi-ton machinery that runs in and out of the canal has damaged their boats, docks and seawalls.

The Times interviewed the three landowners closest to the offload site and, according to professional estimates, they said their properties have sustained nearly $120,000 in total damage.

Mr. Watkins stood on his dock last week next to a pair of pumpkin-sized chunks of foam that he says were ripped off his boat's dock by turbulence. He pointed to the area where, in August, a barge crashed into his seawall and cracked it in five places.

"The sea grass out there gets better protected than we are," Mrs. Watkins said.

The Watkinses acknowledge that they will benefit from the project when it's over, but they just want be made whole. They've begun to doubt that will ever happen.

As Mr. Watkins described their troubles, a dredge employee puttered by on a skiff.

"Give it up. It ain't never going to happen," the man yelled at Mr. Watkins. "Dream big. Keep dreaming."

Years of planning

County officials have talked about this project for 17 years. Year after year, versions of it were mired in financial, legal and environmental problems.

In recent years, decisions seemed to focus more and more on one issue: a strict deadline the county needed to meet in order to get $6 million in state funds for a dredge estimated to cost $9 million at the time.

The job was to dredge the 3-mile channel 6 feet deep and 60 feet wide and to straighten and lengthen the pathway.

Delays continued until earlier this year, when commissioners chose Tampa-based BCPeabody and eventually made then-transportation services director Susan Goebel the dredge manager. Dredging began in May. But despite months of planning, the contractor determined that it couldn't use pipes, filters and settling ponds to remove most of the material.

Instead, BCPeabody decided in August it would use excavators on massive barges to dig up rock, then deposit it on land. That's when the dredge turned into an around-the-clock operation.

The residents at the end of that slender canal had no idea what was coming.

Damage claims

Phil Rubin wanted this. He went before the commission and campaigned for the project. When the barges and the tugs first cruised through the water behind his house, he was excited.

The feeling didn't last.

Rubin owns two properties that have been affected by the dredge: an empty corner lot, exposed to barges making their final turn toward the offload site, and his home, 200 feet farther west.

The cost to repair the seawalls on both sites, which he says were badly damaged by the project, is about $82,000. Massive cracks spiderweb through the concrete. At low tide, the wall nakedly juts out over the water and reveals how much material has washed out beneath it.

He acknowledged that the corner seawall had some wear before the dredge, but estimated it had at least five to seven more years of useful life. Now, it has virtually none.

He noticed the seawalls at both locations shifting in mid August. Through email and a letter, Rubin said, he sent BCPeabody pictures of the changes. Company employee John Richardson soon met with Rubin, reviewed the seawall at the vacant lot and told him that because the concrete showed signs of pre-existing stress, BCPeabody was not responsible for its condition.

The next day, on Sept. 3, Rubin said he emailed BCPeabody, requesting written confirmation of the meeting, but he still hasn't heard back. On Nov. 10, he met with Commissioner Jim Adkins and presented his case.

The commissioner said he first needed to talk to the county attorney and Goebel. Adkins, Rubin said, promised to get back with him by Nov. 15.

Three days later, Rubin learned from Richard and Betty Watkins that a barge had slammed into his seawall on the vacant lot. He notified Adkins, Goebel and the other county commissioners.

Other than a note from Goebel stating that she was out of town, Rubin said he received no answer.

"I cannot believe how nonresponsive the county has been in this," he said. "It's such a shame that they and their contractor have been so lackadaisical in our back yard."

In fact, he said, the county did not reply to him until midday Thursday, four hours after two Times reporters questioned Goebel, community relations coordinator Brenda Frazier and chief procurement officer Russell Wetherington about, among other things, the county's lack of responsiveness to people who complained about damages.

Rubin, the Watkinses and others who have reported problems never expected that they would be left to deal with the issues alone. The contract says the county may refuse to pay the contractor if "claims have been filed." Until late last week, the county had instructed residents with damages to notify BCPeabody and county staffers of the problems. Because of that, neighbors believed that by reporting damages to the contractor and the county, they were filing official claims, enabling the county to withhold payments from the contractor.

Four months after many of the complaints were first lodged, county officials have just informed residents that they must file claims with BCPeabody's insurance company.

Wetherington noted that he had personally informed BCPeabody staffers recently that they wouldn't receive their final payment until they resolved all of the claims.

Estimates indicate repairs to the Watkinses' seawall would cost $21,459. Their neighbors, Joe and Terry D'Amato, say estimates show they've sustained $15,390 in damages.

For both couples, the dredge project has consumed their lives.

Because of the incessant flashing lights and noise, which they say sounds like bombs being dropped in their back yard, the Watkinses have slept in their bedroom only twice over the last three months.

Terry D'Amato, 81, said her already fragile health has collapsed since the dredge began. She rarely sleeps because of the noise. The dust and fumes have caused respiratory troubles, and she has unremitting stress over the barges damaging their property. Mrs. D'Amato has spent two months in the hospital since the project began.

"We were doing well until this happened," she said.

An issue of priority

The Watkinses call themselves "collateral damage."

It's a joke. Sort of.

Why, they ask, didn't the county or contractor warn them in advance of what seemed to be inevitable harm to their property or, if damage occurred, inform them that they would face the problems on their own?

Mrs. Watkins believes she knows why. The residents and their well-being, she said, were never a priority.

"Get … the … job … done," she said. "That's their focus."

Goebel acknowledged that much of the project hasn't gone as smoothly as possible and that she wished residents would have been better informed of what was coming. But the looming deadline, she said, forced the county to act quickly.

"We did the best outreach we could, given the time frame," she said. "The entire project has been affected by the deadline."

The county had been operating under a state-imposed deadline of Dec. 31, but recently obtained an extension until June 30.

The county's response to complaints, Goebel said, is also constrained. The county must act within the limitations of the contract, she said, meaning it can do little more with disgruntled residents than to take their concerns to the contractor.

When asked about the severe impact on nearby residents' quality of life, Goebel responded bluntly: "It's a construction project that operates 24 hours a day."

Mistakes documented

A still camera, video camera, audio recorder and pair of binoculars sit on the mantle next to the Watkinses' back window.

They have recorded dozens of apparent violations of the state permit, the contract and the county ordinance at and around the offload site: tugboats generating massive wakes and violating the idle speed ordinance; boats and barges running aground, a permit violation; docks and seawalls struck, breaching county ordinance.

Also, in one startling photograph, the Watkinses caught a dredge employee welding and scattering sparks within feet of five massive tanks holding thousands of gallons in fuel.

BCPeabody owner Bob Carpenter said mistakes in this size of project are inevitable. When his staffers learn of issues, he said, they address them.

The welder, for instance, was retrained.

"That," Carpenter said of the blunder, "was not even remotely smart."

Though he didn't offer specifics, Carpenter said he had fired several employees for mistakes.

Also, Carpenter noted, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has visited the site seven times and only once found a violation.

"We've gotten plenty of supervision," he said. "I feel like I've had plenty of people watching me."

As for questions about the damage, he acknowledged that his company is responsible for proven damage and has already resolved some of the issues.

Carpenter estimated the project had harmed fewer than 10 docks and inflicted far less than $100,000 in damage. He disputed neighbors' assertions of dredge damage topping $120,000.

When asked how his company would handle residents' claims that the dredge had crippled their seawalls, Carpenter said he would require proof before he compensated anyone. He never mentioned referring them to his insurance company.

From the start, Carpenter said, he anticipated the project would cause damage. But he didn't expect as much as he's had. He blames the change in the dredging method.

BCPeabody hired Konga Marine Logistics, a small company based in New Port Richey, to handle what was initially supposed to be a relatively small job.

When the primary dredging method changed from hydraulic to mechanical, Konga became the main subcontractor for the entire project. That put a strain on the fledgling company and set the stage for potential problems. Rather than a pipe draining muddy water from the channel, massive barges and excavators would be navigating down the residential canals.

Konga, formed two years ago, has only worked on two other dredge operations. The one in Hernando is four times larger than either of its previous jobs.

Konga owner Wayne Konga said he budgeted for $60,000 to $80,000 in damages, noting that "you never want to hit your insurance." The company, he said, already pays $200,000 for insurance each year. Claims would increase that number.

From his decades of experience, Konga said, he doubts that his operation caused substantial damage to neighboring seawalls, but said engineers could better determine that. Those claims, he also said, can be addressed when the project is finished.

"The first priority," he said, "was to take care of substantial completion."

The company's troubles have extended beyond accusations of damage.

Residents heard rumors that some of the company's employees might be felons. Wayne Konga's son, Keith, is listed in state documents as a manager for the company and has a recent criminal past. He was released from prison in 2009 after being convicted on drug charges.

Konga defended his son and insisted he is among the best workers on the job.

"The kid has taken a 180-degree turn," he said. "I know how far he's come."

He estimated that about a dozen of his employees are felons.

He has also been plagued by financial issues as the number of company employees increased from about 10 to about 50. On some weeks, he has struggled to pay his staff on time. In one instance, he failed to pay a vendor $54,000, and BCPeabody had to temporarily cover the cost.

"I don't mind taking the heat," Konga said, "on everything that's gone south."

A Times reporter twice asked Carpenter if he was happy with Konga Marine's work on the job.

Carpenter declined to answer.

End in sight

The Watkinses discussed their concerns several times with Commissioner Wayne Dukes. In each case, they said, he didn't take them seriously or provide them with a direct answer on what he could or would do to help.

"It makes you think he didn't know what was going on and didn't want to," Mrs. Watkins said. "If they know what's going on, they have to do something about it."

Dukes was surprised to hear that. He felt he had taken the initial complaint seriously and said, "In every case … it's been dealt with.''

Each of the five commissioners said BCPeabody would not receive its final payment until the company resolved any outstanding claims.

Commissioner John Druzbick, though, noted that residents should have to prove the project caused the damage because people often make frivolous claims against the county. Still, he said, the homeowners should have known months ago that their recourse was to file a claim with the contractor's insurance company.

Commissioner Dave Russell, who has worked to support the dredge from his days as a state lawmaker, said the latest issues with the project should not be a surprise, given the dredge's history.

"I can see that this project is going to be a fight to the bitter end,'' he said. "But the end is in sight.''

Reach John Woodrow Cox at jcox@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1432. Reach Barbara Behrendt at behrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

Residents decry Hernando Beach Channel dredge: It's a nightmare 12/10/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 10, 2011 1:57pm]

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