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DERM also has detected eighteen mysterious piles of coral rock on the ocean bottom between the mouth of Government Cut and a federally authorized offshore disposal site about four miles east of Virginia Key. DERM had received complaints from charter-boat captains who reported they observed dredging contractors “dumping this material in unapproved locations offshore,” Grossenbacher says. But the agency did not investigate the complaints until it discovered the dredging violation. “We believe the anomalies are piles of dredge spoil, piles of rock. We haven't established yet that the material came from this project. It's possible.” If it turns out to be true, the dumpers could face federal criminal charges for breaking U.S. environmental laws.
Dutra workers returned to the channel in January of last year after the county made a deal with Safeco, a company that had insured the dredging project. Safeco agreed to finance a resumption of the dredging and to reimburse the port for the $9.9 million Dutra had overbilled. Dutra resumed work for six months and then pulled out of the job, saying its arsenal could not compete with the resilience of coral rock.
Today, a year and a half after sending out the violation notices, DERM cannot get Ajamil, Dutra, or anyone else to fess up or provide answers. Under county law the agency could fine the port, Dutra, and Ajamil up to $25,000 per day for each day that has passed since the illegal dredging began. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which also has been looking into the matter, could levy additional penalties. “We are asking them for more information,” Grossenbacher says, including records of engineers who conducted routine inspections during the dredging. He also has asked Post Buckley Schuh & Jernigan to help clarify whether its former employee -- Ajamil -- was the engineer of record. He believes the company has ignored him. PBS&J's general counsel Becky Schaffer says she is not aware of DERM's investigation.
DERM regulators also are growing impatient with port officials, who have taken a year and a half to come up with a plan to refill the damaged five-acre area and replenish the destroyed sea grass or restore some other ravaged portion of the bay.
Towsley says his staff is still working on that. “There are fairly complex environmental issues,” he observes. “Part of it was, Can you go back and plant sea grasses in those areas or not? Some biologists say that mitigations of sea grasses just don't work.” He does not want to be held responsible for the misdeeds of others, though. “I can't account for what happened here before,” he says, adding that after he took over in January 1998, “I made it very clear to my staff that everything gets done according to Hoyle.”
Nonetheless Towsley raises the possibility that Dutra's crews made an honest mistake: “Dredging projects are not an exact science.” It would appear that also applies to DERM's system for monitoring a fellow county agency with a penchant for digging next to fragile ecosystems.
Still the desire to dig keeps churning. Although the current debacle remains unresolved, Towsley has filed a new application to continue dredging the southern turning basin and other areas. State and county environmental officials are evaluating the request.