HERNANDO BEACH — As 2011 draws to a close, so does the public works project that has followed such a winding and controversial course that officials have nearly run out of superlatives to describe it — the Hernando Beach Channel dredge.
Workers from contractor BCPeabody and subcontractor Konga Marine Logistics have been sprinting to the finish over the past several weeks to avoid a $5,000-a-day penalty that would have kicked in had they not reached "substantial completion'' of the dredge by today.
But that goal, county officials announced Friday, has been achieved.
"Hernando County has a usable channel with only a few areas remaining that are just shy of meeting the 6-foot depth and 60-foot width," a media release proclaimed.
Seventeen years in the planning and execution, the dredge consumed huge amounts of county staff time during 2011, from those involved with the bidding to those thrust into the position of managing the project.
The delays frustrated everyone, raising questions about why what seemed like such a simple project — dredging a 3-mile channel to the required depths — was such a challenge.
In 2010, county officials decided to rebid the project after the county terminated its contract with the previous dredge contractor, Orion Dredging Services. The company is still tied up in a lawsuit with Hernando County.
Even as the year began, county commissioners found themselves frustrated that, while more than a dozen firms had sat in on a pre-bid conference, only one company, BCPeabody, bid on the dredge. Only that firm was willing to work within the parameters of the existing state permit, which the county had worked for years to obtain.
But the county couldn't afford the version of the dredge set forth in the permit and decided to have the permit altered, then bid again. Along the way, officials also struggled with who should oversee the work and even talked about the county acting as the general contractor for the project, but ultimately rebid the project.
In the second round of bidding, six companies applied, with four finally coming to the county with pitches. Ultimately, it was BCPeabody that was selected for the job.
Again the county talked about oversight, especially given its bad experience with the Orion firm the year before. County Administrator David Hamilton found a solution: contractor Greg Jarque. He had met Jarque through his wife, Linda, who had worked with Jarque on the Arc Nature Coast training center and hurricane shelter construction project.
Linda Hamilton, a fundraiser, spoke highly of Jarque and the job he did overseeing construction on the Arc project, which he brought in early and on budget. With the looming state deadline for completion of the dredge, that set of skills appealed to Hamilton.
But after the commission approved hiring Jarque, the arrangement blew up in Hamilton's face. It turned out that Jarque, a well-respected local businessman, had a record in New York for attempted arson years ago, and the general contractor's license he claimed to have was instead a lesser construction license of a building contractor.
Hamilton fired Jarque, and the matter was investigated by the office of the clerk of the circuit court, which issued a critical audit. Commissioners sought interested parties that wanted to act as construction manager for the project. They had several takers, then reversed course again and decided that the county staff could oversee the dredge.
Once the dredge was under way in earnest, small issues popped up, from missed reports to equipment failures to down days, all of which were problematic as the clock continued to tick down toward the Dec. 31 deadline.
By the end of July, a much larger issue had emerged.
The original plan was to use hydraulic dredge equipment to remove most of what had clogged the channel, a method that involved sucking the material out of the water, filtering it and then returning clean water to a canal. But after several months of operation, that method wasn't getting the job done.
The contractor had to swing into a full mechanical dredge, even though that method was originally only supposed to be a small portion of the operation. Mechanical dredging uses excavators to dig up the rocks blocking the channel. The material is then loaded onto barges and off-loaded on land.
While the switch sped up the dredge process, it also led to a number of complaints from neighbors who suffered damage to boats, docks and seawalls. Earlier this month, county officials sent out a notice that those with claims against the dredging operation needed to contact the contractor's insurance company.
Final completion of the dredge is expected by the end of January.
Commissioner Dave Russell, who has bird-dogged the project since he was in the state Legislature and state dollars were allocated to accomplish it, said he has a range of emotions when he thinks about completion of the dredge after such a difficult road.
"Thank goodness,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.