Same Place, New Debacle

The same county that brought us little-traveled-but environmentally destructive-multimillion-dollar toll roads, a neighbor-vs.-neighbor war over a proposed $2 billion international airport and the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history presents a new public-private policy fiasco: the $7.4 million dredging of Upper Newport Bay.

The project recently sparked a federal investigation when it was discovered that all 600,000 cubic yards of silt, sand and sediment that had been dredged since work started in 1997 had been dumped in the wrong spot off the coast. Now there's more bad news: the county-hired private contractor's work (which one state official described as "sloppy") has so severely stirred up sediment throughout the environmentally sensitive bay that the project has continually failed to meet conditions of its state Regional Water Quality Control Board permit. Permitees can be shut down for just one violation, an option no one has proposed in this case.

Ken Theisen, a sanitary engineering associate at the board's Riverside office, says his agency routinely tests the bay, discovers the water is too murky, notifies the county that its contractor is out of compliance and finds that water quality improves for a short time-and then returns to a state of unacceptable murkiness.

"I don't think that's a fair characterization," said Ken Smith, deputy director/chief engineer of the county's Public Facilities and Resources Department. The board "did have complaints earlier in the project. We had meetings. . . . And it's my understanding it has been corrected." Smith could not recall any violations in the past five months.

While a certain amount of cloudiness is expected in waters immediately surrounding the hydraulic-dredging equipment used to scrape up the bay floor, unacceptable levels continue to be detected upstream and downstream from the site, Theisen said. Staff has gone so far as to draft a cease-and-desist order on the project, he said, although "right now, we are trying to find out everything we can about it and why the violations are continuing."

The state Department of Fish and Game owns the bay, and the county is the state agent administering the dredging contract. Both agencies are responsible for seeing that the water-quality conditions are met; they could also be named in Environmental Protection Agency fines over the misguided ocean dumping. But the actual dredging and disposal work is being done by private companies contracted by the county: Soli-Flo Partners L.P., which is co-owned by Irvine-based Fluor Daniel Inc., and subcontractor Brusco Barge and Tug.

Fluor spokeswoman Lisa Boyette issued a statement on Feb. 24 that said Soli-Flo "has not been formally notified of any investigations by the state Regional Water Quality Control Board. Even if an investigation is pending, it is inappropriate to comment on a matter about which the company has not been informed."

The 782-acre bay must be dredged periodically to remove glop that builds up and threatens the wetland habitat for birds and marine life. Silt flows out of the upper bay have also caused navigational problems for Newport Harbor boats. But dredging is itself an environmental hazard. "They are stirring up and destroying habitat," Theisen said. "We want to keep impacts localized . . . so that they are not impacting more of the bay than they really need to."

He said the Upper Newport Bay violations are unusual. "Most dredgers comply with the law," he said. "Most dredgers have very little problems complying. The dredging industry knows what the problems will be and tries to dredge accordingly."

Despite the violations, county officials have pushed for change orders that have added $2 million to the project's original $5.4 million price tag. Said a source close to the project, "This is a train that's not going to stop."

 
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