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Muck cleanup racing the rains

County officials are prepared for a massive muck cleanup while water levels are low. The problem is getting permits before the rainy season.

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2000


HERNANDO -- With the rainy season fast approaching, Citrus County officials are desperately trying to beat nature's normal deadlines in order to obtain permits for large-scale muck removal projects within the Tsala Apopka lake chain.

They are hustling to justify the use of $250,000 left over from the county's portion of the state's aquatic weed removal fund. Because of the drought, Citrus has not spent the money and local officials, including state Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, do not want to see it go to waste.

But they are showing increased frustration with the permitting obstacles set down by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must approve major removals of the accumulated dead vegetation revealed by the receding water.

Citrus officials fear the waters may not stay low for long. The corps has indicated the quickest time frame for approval is about a month.

"We have the funding, we can get the equipment, but the problem was the delays caused by the permitting process," County Commissioner Gary Bartell said. "That's unacceptable."

Bartell, with help from Argenziano, has been pressing upper-level corps officials in the Jacksonville headquarters to expedite the permit application reviews. After excusing himself from Tuesday's commission meeting and placing calls to both state and federal officials -- including U.S. Rep. Karen Thurman, D-Dunnellon, and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham -- Bartell said he got a promise from corps officials to tour the area with local officials.

The tour could have ramifications beyond the six projects being targeted by Citrus for the $250,000 in remaining funds. The county has its eyes on other state aquatic weed removal funding as well, Bartell said. Department of Environmental Protection officials could not be reached to learn what amounts may be available.

If other counties do not earmark their aquatic weed removal funds, Bartell wants to use them in Citrus. So working closely with the corps, as well as the DEP, which oversees the program, is crucial.

The county has filed six individual permit applications to remove up to 50,000 cubic yards at each of the sites. On Thursday, the corps permits branch chief in Jacksonville, Rosemary Gilbertson, did not have good news for local officials, however.

The corpsis locked into a specific review schedule that includes notifying neighbors surrounding the proposed project sites, giving them about two weeks to respond and smoothing over environmental issues with state agencies, such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, she said.

In addition, if people object, their concerns have to be assessed, she said.

The county has offered to handle the notification mailings at its own cost but that will not make a big difference she said while criticizing the county for waiting this long to apply.

Prior to this permitting effort, some local residents complained about a perceived confusion of messages emanating from corps and DEP officials.

"We have received their applications and are processing them post haste," Gilbertson said. "Normally the people apply for the removals in the appropriate time frame so there's not a need for this. I understand the county is doing the best they can."

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