Janary looms large for port

By TIM CROFTThe Star
227-7827 |@PSJ_Star
tcroft@starfl.com

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A positive sign for the development of the Port St. Joe could be found recently in newsprint.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has advertised a public notice that effectively informs the public that dredging will be taking place in the future in waters around St. Joseph Bay and requesting public comment.

The public notice for a "variance" is an indication that the DEP is preparing to issue a permit to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said Tommy Pitts, project manager with Hatch Mott MacDonald.

"That is a positive sign," Pitts said.

The Army Corps is to perform the actual dredging through a contributed funds agreement with the Port Authority of Port St. Joe.

While the effort to permit the dredging moves ahead, the work on permitting the spoil disposal, which is moving on a parallel plane, is reaching a critical juncture, with Hatch Mott in the lead.

The final permit application for the spoil work, after two rounds of agency requests for additional information, was to be submitted to the DEP on Dec. 29, Pitts said.

The turnaround on receiving that environmental permit is expected to be short.

"We're there," Pitts said. "We expect to get that permit in January. The DEP, while they have of course enforced environmental regulations, has worked cooperatively with us not to delay the project."

A federal environmental permit from the Corps must then be secured.

The Corps can not complete its initial work on the permit until after the DEP issues its permit, which will include water quality studies.

The wild card is that the Corps is not working on a clock in issuing the federal environmental permit.

A host of federal agencies will provide input and recommendations, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service which requested a 30-day extension for initial comments.

"We don't know how long it will take, but we do think that once the DEP issues its permit, it will expedite the process," Pitts said.

He added that a recent phone call from Corps officials indicated that the first round of Requests for Additional Information (RAI) will be submitted to Hatch Mott sometime after the first of the year.

The timeline for the completion of the dredging, which is estimated by the Corps to be within six months of permitting, remains the end of 2015, Pitts said.

The Florida Department of Transportation already has appropriated $20 million for the dredge work, which is price-tagged at $40 million in the contributed funds agreement with the Corps.

The county's delegation to the Florida Legislature intends to lobby for the additional $20 million for dredging during the upcoming legislative session.

The price tag for the spoil disposal side of the ledger has been projected upward by Hatch Mott, as highlighted in letters submitted recently to the Port Authority.

Hatch Mott submitted a proposal to complete the engineering and design work on the berms and other infrastructure required for disposal of more than 1.5 million cubic yards of spoil material.

"This will be one of the largest earthworks projects in North Florida," Pitts said, noting that the project includes construction of some 6 miles of berm.

Hatch Mott officials have emphasized to the Port Authority that expedited progress on the construction of the spoil sites was essential to meeting the proposed timeline for completion of dredging. That infrastructure must be largely in place before dredging.

The engineering and design work required to bring the project up to creation of bid documents and awarding of the work comes with a cost of $1.2 million, Hatch Mott proposed to the Port Authority.

The actual construction of berms and infrastructure, given dredging to a depth of 35-36 feet, was more than $15 million, or three times a previous ballpark estimate.

That will mean additional state investment.

Port Authority chairman Eugene Raffield said discussions are ongoing with the DEP over the scope of the required disposal sites and said though the price appears to be heading north, he remained undeterred.

"I'm optimistic, and I am optimistic by nature," Raffield said. "There is a lot of opportunity here to get this port going.

"I want to create good, clean jobs and wealth that will mean our kids don't have to move elsewhere to live. The permit is the key. If we don't get that we can all go home."