The state Department of Environmental Protection is investigating the illegal dumping of dirty water into a bay off Island Estates by city-contracted crews fixing a sewer line.
The DEP halted construction on the Island Way project for two weeks in May after inspectors discovered crews pumping groundwater out of a hole they were working in, over a seawall and into the bay.
The groundwater did not contain sewage, city officials said. But dumping unfiltered groundwater into the bay violates state wetlands rules, according to DEP spokesman Mike Zavosky.
"It's an unhealthy practice for the marine environment. There's no question about that," he said. "That's why those rules exist."
Terry Finch, environmental manager for the city, said the dirty water covers up sea grass beds and has the potential to destroy them.
So far, no citations have been issued. But fines or restoration could be ordered based on results of the DEP investigation, which is expected within 30 days. City Public Works Administrator Mahshid Arasteh said Palmetto-based Westra Construction Corp., not the city, is responsible for any potential fines or added costs related to the dumping.
Zavosky said investigators are working to determine the extent of the damage as well as the circumstances surrounding the illegal dumping.
The agency takes the matter seriously, he said, because sea grass is vital to a healthy marine environment. The beds act as a nursery for fish and crabs, support birds and act as a natural filter for pollutants, helping to keep the water clear.
Regulations against this type of dumping are no secret, Zavosky said.
"The rules are widely known by contractors," he said. "If you're in that type of business, you're aware."
But Westra vice president Jeff McWhorter, whose firm was contracted by the city to build two new pump stations and refurbish two others, said he was unfamiliar with the restrictions.
"I didn't know about that rule," he said. "I did not intentionally violate any law."
McWhorter said he does not know how much dirty water was dumped.
"To our knowledge, it wasn't that big a deal," he said. "I mean, it was muddy water, but it should not affect anything."
McWhorter and Arasteh said construction crews have stopped dumping the water into the intracoastal; rather, they are filtering it, then pumping it back into the ground.
Work on the project began Jan. 9 after a sewer line collapsed unexpectedly. Crews were called to make emergency repairs before work on a new pump station could begin. The DEP stopped construction on May 16. A permit to resume was issued on May 29.
The $750,000 project is running three months behind schedule and $300,000 over budget, city officials said. The extra expense and most of the delays were caused by the sewer line collapse, according to Finch. Construction is now expected to wrap up Oct. 8.
"The contractor was doing his best to complete the project on time," Finch said. "He probably should have consulted environmental staff before he pursued discharging the water over the wall. But we seem to have it under control at this point."
_ Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrellsptimes.com.