Pinellas County sues contractors over Lake Seminole clean-up

Published Sept. 4, 2013

Pinellas County is suing the two companies it hired years ago to design and build several water treatment facilities for Lake Seminole as part of an attempt to reduce water pollution.

The lawsuit, filed Aug. 21, claims that Environmental Research and Design and Tampa Contracting Services failed to properly design the project that, once built, suffered structural problems and ultimately cost the county additional money to repair. The county is suing for damages and negligence.

The project was funded with money from Penny for Pinellas and also relied on grants from the Southwest Florida Water Management District, also known as Swiftmud, which is not involved in the suit.

Leaders of both companies said the lawsuit came as a surprise.

The Lake Seminole project ended in 2011, said Daniel Harte, founder and chief executive officer of Tampa Contracting Services, which is based in Palmetto.

"The project was done and substantially complete," he said. "This is news to me."

An attorney for the county declined to comment, citing the ongoing legal dispute.

In 2003, Pinellas officials brought in Environmental Research and Design as a consultant to study the feasibility of building a stormwater treatment system, which would use the chemical alum to reduce turbidity. The company still lists the project on its website, where it says it was paid about $2.4 million for engineering and construction work that was completed in September 2009.

In October of that year, according to the lawsuit, the county sent ERD a letter expressing "dissatisfaction regarding the adequacy of the design of the aluminum sheet pile retaining walls, which form the sides of the alum treatment trough."

The lawsuit states that the company designed the walls poorly and, when confronted with complaints, didn't adequately repair them.

ERD president Harvey Harper said he wasn't aware that his company was being sued and couldn't comment.

Tampa Contracting Services was hired in 2008 to build the treatment systems and initially paid about $3.3 million. But over the next several years, Pinellas officials extended the contract several times.

In 2010, responding to problems with the aluminum sheet pile walls and rain delays, officials decided to give the company until Jan. 31, 2011, to finish and upped the total payment to $4.6 million.

"These events were beyond the contractor's control," county officials wrote then, a position the lawsuit suggests they no longer hold.

Given more time, the company replaced the aluminum walls with concrete.

Southwest Florida Water Management District spokeswoman Terri Behling said two of the treatment systems are now complete and one is "nearing completion."

It's unclear if the county has hired a new firm to finish the construction — Pinellas officials wouldn't comment on the project's current state — which now has an expected end date of Dec. 31, 2013.

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In total, Behling said, the district contributed $2.4 million to the project. It is not involved in the lawsuit, she said, because county officials never contacted the district about it.