Fallout from an accident at a sewage plant now threatens to derail the removal of polluted muck from Stevenson Creek in north Clearwater. That's unacceptable. Residents waited more than 20 years for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to launch the project and it is essential to restoring the health of the waterway. What's needed is a way forward — preferably, one that doesn't involve a courtroom to solve a contract dispute between the Army Corps and the dredge contractor.
Stevenson Creek receives water that drains from a 6,000-acre watershed through mid-Pinellas. The water flows into a wide estuary before emptying into St. Joseph Sound near the intersection of Edgewater Drive and Sunset Point Road.
The estuary used to be popular for boating, swimming and fishing. But today few boats can navigate it because it has become so shallow. There's no swimming now, since even wading can be hazardous. One man who decided to risk it sank up to his chest in thick muck and had to be rescued.
The smelly muck is an accumulation of sediment, debris and pollutants that washed downstream for decades. For years, residents who lived along the creek demanded that it be dredged to remove the toxic mud, return the waterway to health and restore its recreational value. After all those years of frustration, residents were pleased when the Army Corps approved a $4.7 million dredging project and hired SEEK Enterprises of Brandon to do it.
The dredging got under way in July but stopped abruptly Oct. 2 when raw sewage spilled into the waterway from the city's Marshall Street sewage treatment plant, built decades ago alongside the creek. The city said all traces of the sewage had cleared after three days, but SEEK said its tests showed high concentrations of fecal coliform bacteria on the bottom. Now, SEEK wants more money and extra training for its workers. The Army Corps is demanding that SEEK abide by the terms of its existing contract.
For years, the Marshall Street plant was notorious for its spills and smells. The plant is old and some of its equipment is balky or difficult to repair. The city has spent millions on upgrades, but nearby residents claim spills into the creek still occur. In addition to the Oct. 2 spill, the city reported a spill in January 2009.
After so many decades of stormwater runoff and sewage spills, it's likely that fecal matter and other hazardous material are in the muck. Was SEEK, an experienced dredging company headed by a retired Army Corps of Engineers officer, unaware of that possibility, and if so, why? Were bid specifications misleading in that regard? Do workers face any real hazards from operating a dredge on the creek? Would the two sides agree to testing of the water and muck by an objective third party to determine whether the work really would be risky?
With all parties dug in, hiring a new contractor may be the only way forward, but that would mean more delays and frustration for residents who have already suffered enough disappointments. The city, though its sewage spill started the dispute, might be able to mediate between the corps and the contractor. The goal should be to get the project going again as soon as possible without exposing anyone to health hazards.