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Marina comes under watch of agencies as fill dirt washes into coastal waters

Muddy water runs in the drainage canal on Shoal Line Boulevard after rains last month washed fill dirt off the property of the Blue Pelican Marina in Hernando Beach.
Published Aug. 6, 2015

HERNANDO BEACH — Todd Zernick first got a glimpse of the beauty of western Hernando County when he was working on a job at the education center behind Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

He walked down to the Weeki Wachee River to touch the water and admire its clarity, and vowed to find a place in the area to live, which he did seven years ago.

A boater and a fisherman, Zernick watched last year as his neighbors tried and failed to block Blue Pelican Marina in Hernando Beach from expanding, and he feared for the sensitive environment nearby. Then in April, he watched the marina illegally dump fill on its property one Saturday; the business was told to stop, but continued the next week.

Eventually, the marina got its permits, and owner Gordon Wolf was slapped with a $1,000 fine.

So when the recent heavy rains started last month, Zernick decided to stop by the site where the fill had been spread. What he saw shocked him.

The silt-screen fencing was not containing the fill, and the body of water that straddles Shoal Line Boulevard had turned the same muddy color as the fresh dirt on the marina site, where construction of a lodge is planned. Those waters flow to pristine Minnow Creek, and at the confluence it looked like tea laced with swirls of cream-colored runoff. Beyond Minnow Creek lie critical estuaries.

Zernick documented what he saw with his camera, then shared the photos with the Tampa Bay Times in hopes someone could stop the degradation of the estuaries, which serve as the nursery for the coastal area's rich fish harvest.

"I think it's a very delicate system back there," Zernick said, "and they don't even care."

What has followed has been another series of stern warnings and deadlines for compliance sent to the marina, which has a history of code and compliance violations.

Just 12 minutes after John Powanda, a compliance staff engineer with the Southwest Florida Water Management District, saw the first of the photos on the morning of July 20, he wrote Wolf an email.

"Your silt fences are not working," Powanda wrote. "You currently have an open permit condition violation for not having silt fences properly constructed."

He ordered filling to stop and visited the marina that day.

Wolf had first been told that the fence was a problem April 14, months before the start of the rainy season. He was told again in June that the fence was out of compliance.

In the days that followed delivery of the photos, Swiftmud started monitoring water quality, and officials from Hernando County and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection visited the site. Each agency detailed ways that Wolf could shore up the silt fence.

Rain continued in the days that followed, complicating the effort to fix the filtering system.

A week after Zernick took the first string of photos, he returned to find more mud-colored water pouring from the site. While a DEP spokeswoman said that the conditions could be chocked up to heavy rain, Powanda was again displeased with Wolf's progress.

On July 30 he again wrote to the marina, saying that what Wolf had done had not fixed the problem. Fill was still washing off the stockpile.

"Turbidity has been documented in the receiving water body exceeding allowable standards," he wrote. "Additional best management practices need to be designed and implemented to ensure that discharges from the project site fall within acceptable standards."

Wolf was given until Aug. 29 to fix the problem. Failure to comply with permit requirements, Powanda noted, is a violation of Florida law and could result in further enforcement action.

State regulators have told Wolf not only to fix the silt fence, but also to add berms and multiple filtering devices to remove the fill that has already filtered into the wetlands. He must also set up a monitoring system.

Wolf has not responded to numerous phone and email requests from the Times seeking comment.

Fill dirt muddying the wetlands and the estuaries that stretch beyond is a serious environmental problem, according to Andrea Andersen, a Suncoast Sierra Club spokeswoman.

"Estuaries are delicate ecosystems that can be negatively impacted by sediment runoff created by some development projects," she said in a written statement. Increasing or changing sediment "may alter the habitat so much that some animals and plants can no longer survive in the estuary," Andersen said.

"With already so many threats to our waterways, it is important that developers follow regulations and build responsibly."

Zernick said he was glad that the agencies were forcing Wolf to fix the situation, but "everyone is just signing off on this.

"I wish someone would be held accountable."

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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