The operators of SunCruz casino boats are dredging up, figuratively and literally, their history of harming the waterways on which they make their unwholesome living.
The state Department of Environmental Protection is investigating to determine if the Port Richey-based gambling ship has slashed its way through fragile sea grass habitat off the coast of Aripeka. The investigation continues, but photographs supplied by the Southwest Florida Water Management District leave no doubt that something has left a trench about 12 feet wide and 3,000 feet long through the sea grass beds. A company representative denies it was SunCruz, but a water district official said the casino boat is the only vessel in that area of the Hernando-Pasco county coast large enough to leave such a damaging wound.
If confirmed, it should come as no surprise to those who have followed SunCruz' reckless, and sometimes devious, approach to doing business.
In 1997, a SunCruz boat's propeller dredged shallow areas of the Crystal River in Citrus County under the cover of darkness. Even after the state DEP and the Army Corps of Engineers issued cease-and-desist orders to keep the boat in dock, SunCruz defied the regulatory agencies. Only after two boat pilots were arrested did SunCruz move north to Inglis, where it continued to demonstrate that it was not a good corporate neighbor by dumping the boat's sewage into the Gulf of Mexico. Two years later, the company also was accused by the DEP of damaging the Pithlachascotee River bottom.
All told, these episodes demonstrate an unmistakable pattern of indifference to the environment and contempt for the rules that prohibit destruction of vital aquatic resources. Such a blemished past does little to inspire confidence in SunCruz' most recent denials of wrongdoing.
One factor that might contribute to SunCruz' self-assured past is that the fines for damaging sea grass and river beds are minuscule compared to the lucrative profits that can be realized for keeping the gambling boats afloat. Stiffer penalties, although not a panacea, would be a greater deterrent.
The DEP has been aware since December of the damage to the sea grass beds west of Aripeka, where shuttle boats leave Port Richey and deliver gamblers to the mother ship 9 miles out in international waters. Yet, the agency's investigation is not complete and there is a possibility of ongoing injury to these delicate habitats, which serve as essential breeding and feeding grounds for myriad marine life.
The DEP should make this probe a higher priority. In the meantime, SunCruz might seek some way to assure the public it is being more responsible and cooperative than it was a decade ago.